E85: Spinning Our Wheels

If you listen to the news lately, you know that E85 is going to lead the U.S. to energy independence, just like it did in Brazil. Senator Hillary Clinton has announced that she is getting into the act:
"President Bush and other elected officials have called for a greater expansion of E-85, a fuel made of 85 percent ethanol that can be used in vehicles built to run on both regular unleaded gasoline and E-85. E-85 is currently available in less than one percent of the country's gas stations, and Clinton wants to accelerate the spread of the fuel to half of the nation's gas stations by 2015 by offering a 50 percent tax credit for station owners who install ethanol pumps.

`We've got to take action on this pump issue or we're just spinning our wheels,' she said."

Just spinning our wheels. Indeed. But let's do a reality check and see whose wheels are spinning. These claims deserve a mathematical analysis, which none of the E85 proponents appear to have done.

According to http://www.corn.org/CRAR2005.PDF (Warning: 1.9 meg file) the estimated corn harvest in 2005 was 10.35 billion bushels, and corn exports were 1.95 billion bushels. According to the 2002 USDA study Estimating the Net Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol, you can get 2.7 gallons of ethanol from a bushel of corn. That means if we turned the entire corn crop into ethanol, we could make 27.9 billion gallons of ethanol. But as we all know, the BTU value of ethanol is around 67% that of gasoline, meaning that on a BTU basis this much ethanol is equivalent to 18.8 billion gallons of gasoline.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, our annual gasoline consumption is up to almost 140 billion gallons. That means on a BTU equivalent basis, converting the entire corn crop into ethanol would amount to 13.4% of our annual gasoline demand. Putting all of that ethanol into the gasoline supply would mean ethanol could comprise 19% of the gasoline supply on a volumetric basis (while consuming all of our corn production). In other words, all of the gasoline in the country could be E19 if we wanted to use 100% of the corn crop. Of course if we only want to turn all of our current exports into ethanol (ignoring the many implications), that would amount to 2.5% of our annual gasoline demand. In that case, E10 could make up about a third of our gasoline supply on a volumetric basis. If we want to convert all of the corn exports into E85, it could make up 3.3% of our total gasoline pool.

But that's the good news. According to the previously mentioned USDA study, it takes 77,228 BTUs of fossil fuel inputs to make 83,961 BTUs of "green, renewable" ethanol. Ignoring co-products for a moment, that means the created energy was a mere 8% in excess of the input energy. Given that the fossil fuels (primarily natural gas) that went into making the ethanol can usually serve as transportation fuels, the amount of transportation fuel that is displaced is only the 8% that was "created". That means that in reality, using our entire corn crop would only displace 1% of our annual gasoline consumption. If we only decide to use our exports, the net displacement of gasoline would be 0.2% of our annual gasoline consumption.

Now, a word about co-products. Energy balance studies of grain ethanol almost always include a BTU credit for the co-products (mostly animal feed). I think this is appropriate, provided that a proper analysis is made of the energy inputs into the products that were displaced. Let's ignore for a moment the fact that some estimates indicate that the "byproduct markets could saturate well short of 11 billion gallons of production". Let's give full credit for the byproducts, just as if they are liquid fuels to be burned. This has no effect on the BTU equivalent calculation, but will affect the displacement calculation. With by-products included, the USDA report has 77,228 BTUs of fossil fuel inputs for 98,333 BTUs of total outputs. In this best case scenario, the ratio of energy out/energy in is 1.27. Converting 100% of the corn crop into ethanol, presuming we had a market for the byproducts, would then displace an incredible 2.0% of our annual gasoline consumption.

So, why the big rush to get E85 pumps at 50% of the nation's gas stations? We can't possibly produce enough E85 to justify putting in all those pumps. Wouldn't it be much better just to push for E10 at more locations? In that case, expensive new pumps are not required, and E10 can already be burned in most vehicles on the road. Or how about encouraging more natural gas vehicles, instead of inefficiently and expensively turning natural gas into ethanol? But I suppose those would be rational solutions, as opposed to feel-good solutions that promise energy independence.

* Acknowledgment

This post was inspired by comments made by Odograph.

I flipped by her speech on TV a few times, catching bits.  In those bits I heard "biofuels" a few times, and hoped that was a general "see what works" thing (ethanol or biodiesel).  I don't mind seeing what works, but yeah, something's got to give on "E85 Everywhere." (thanks for the Ack)
   Excellent post as always.

Can I suggest we all copy an past this as an email to our legislators?


Always change a few words, so you get a different checksum, and the letter counts as original ;-).
Just so everybody gets my (serious) joke, as a computer guy, if I were writing software for elected officials and their email scanning, I'd try to recognize duplicate letters and throw them in "count buckets" ... with form responses counting less than original efforts.
yes thats quite correct.
though i would suspect they have at least one good anti-spam filter that also weeds out most of those emails.
it would be better if you take this, print it out and snail mail it to your reps and have everyone you know do the same.
Great work, Robert.
I performed a very similar, back of the napkin analysis on the same issue years ago (right after the 2002 USDA study came out), and came to very much the same conclusions (as you probably have been able to tell).

Simple mathematics, combined with published and documented research, leads us to this inescapible and quite honestly, common sense conclusion: Ethanol from corn as a replacement for gasoline is a joke. A cruel one, at that.  
This push for "E85, everywhere!"  is yet another smokescreen for a poorly though out plan to put tax dollars in the pockets of ADM and Cargill, sell more obsolete, heavy, and inefficient GM made vehicles, and raise food prices.  
Westtexas's 'Iron Triangle', of course, supports the notion completely. Anything to distract us, the unthinking populace, from the real and inconvienent problems at hand.

So ethanol is a waste of time.  How long can they pass this off before natural law breaks the illusion?
That depends on how many dollars they have to throw into it, I suppose.
Sending an email to anybody other than a local politician (City or County) is a complete waste of time, other than making you feel good that did "something".  Save your keystrokes for something more important, like posting something of interest at TOD.
So what kind of campaign contribution will Hillary be getting from ADM?
I think a lot of these comments are all about the Iowa caucus. I think you can expect people from both parties who have an intent of running for president to make pro-ethanol statements.


Reminds me of an episode of West Wing. The candidates were in Iowa campaigning, the question of the day was "Will you take the pledge?"
Hello RR,

Kudos to you: a Cassandra of E85 Truth!

A few basic questions that should be put to all Pres. candidates are:

1.  Since we have past the peak in food output and drastically reduced food aid to starving children worldwide, shouldn't we be rebuilding future American grain inventories here at home versus burning it in our E85 SUVs?


  1. Since milgov policy is to concentrate the E85 benefits and diffuse the costs to the taxpayer:  what is your projected E85 subsidy tipping point when postPeak American starvation outweighs the E85 elite profits?

  2. How fast does our switching to ERoEI-weak E85 'energy slaves' accelerate the growth of future American manual labor 'wage slaves'; i.e. Westexas's college grads and illegals laboring together in the farm fields?

  3.  If global warming and acquifer depletion result in American Dustbowl conditions will you volunteer yourself and your offspring to a daily regimen of pedaling a bicycle-powered water pump?


Bob Shaw in Phx,AZ  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Hi Bob,

Here's something I've been thinking about a lot in a post-peak world:

I have a 120-acre farm/ranch that could eventually be broken up into smaller micro-farms for families -- say 10 or 15 acres. I've even considered the idea of selling "turn-key permaculture farmettes."

But would it be better keep the land in one piece and hire people to help work it when conventional fuel becomes too expensive.

I recognize the possibility the milgov will simply sieze the farm and do what they want with it, but I'm trying to be an agro-optimist about this.

What would you do?

My preference would be a leaving a small sustenance farm for myself and putting the rest in wildlife refuge, but I have an ethical quandary about providing for wildlife while people starve.

Hello Don in Colorado,

I am a life-long city boy with no farming experience--so this advice is probably wrong--you would know better than I.

Hiring help gives you greater control, but they will abandon you when times get tough.  Selling farmettes offers a chance for better security, community, defensibility, and teamwork because your neighbors will be heavily invested and committed to the land.

Evaluating true sustainability where you include the surrounding wildlife and their habitat requirements is beyond my ability, perhaps some US Parks & Wildlife Game Management textbooks would be a good starting resource.  I would not feel guilty about your ethical quandary trying to save other lifeforms [Noah's Ark]-- it takes all life to make the world go round.

The Overshoot condition will bring plenty of starving people to loot your farm, no matter if you subdivide or not--that is not your fault.  Your job is to save the very last tomato, potato, rutabaga, and parsnip if you can.  Any deer, elk, pine tree and birch that you helped to grow will have to take its chances at that time, but if you and your neighbors have created sufficient quantities--some will escape to survive.

My advice is to spread the Peakoil Outreach to your existing neighbors, hopefully building a small core into an ever larger biosolar habitat that can generate sufficient surplus real wealth. WTSHTF, hopefully your group can hire a company of real crack snipers from Blackwater Security to patrol the perimeter.  This should work fine as long as the meals hold out-- recall my earlier post.  You and your farming neighbors may have to work twice as hard as these Earthmarines, but you won't have to kill anybody, and you and your neighbors will be the ones getting a decent night's rest.

Soldiers make very poor farmers, see my Zimbabwe post. They will be thrilled if you feed them.  Dogs of War viciously defend their food bowls. I think this symbiosis seems logical as the best way to defend 'land lifeboats'.  My two cents--your mileage may vary.

John Robb, former Special Forces member, now of Global Guerrilla blog fame, can probably elaborate further or soundly refute what I am saying is the best course. I suggest you email him:

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Your hired soldiers will become your feudal masters in short order.
Unless you castrate them in infancy, then breed them up as warriors. Then they will be loyal, having no heirs.
Hello EP and other replies,

Thxs for responding.  I never said this would be easy.  Yes, it is quite likely that the Earthmarines will become the eventual feudal masters, but they should be smart enough to realize that it will be counter-productive to kill the hand that feeds them.  Far better to maintain an outward defensive focus until the invasive threat subsides.

As Ted Koppel speculates: [see LATOC news & upates for this essential article] it is far more likely that large biosolar habitats will arise from the profit-oriented drive of international consortiums meeting detritus entropy.  The '3 Days of the Condor' scenario run to its max. profit REAL BIOSOLAR WEALTH conclusion.  Consider: biosolar 'Monsantoland', 'GazPromisedLand', 'XOMobiland', etc as inevitable results.

The overriding concern is if the full-on nuclear gift exchange can be avoided-- a big IF-- but corporate powers, which transcend geographic borders, will do their best to prevent this because noone profits.

In my mind, it is easy to forsee corporate IPOs where the farmers pledge their land & labor in exchange for inclusion into the creation of large and distinct corporate biosolar habitats whereby the corps' accumulated wealth is used to optimize and expand sustainability.  'Cargilland', for example, could quickly arise in the American Heartland to stem the massive throngs leaving the denuded Southwest, similar to the Gretna sheriffs preventing Nawlins residents from crossing the freeway bridge.  It is only logical, as the first order of business, is to prevent the swamping of a 'land lifeboat'.  Corp entities can finance and equip Earthmarines far longer than the disassociated and disorganized detritovores caught in entropic decline.

Once a distinct habitat is created, a similar project to Zimbabwe's "Taking out the Trash" can be commenced to outsource any non-additive economic drags.  Sad.  =(

But I would prefer wholesale mitigation and cooperation to all of the above.  Hopefully an astounding breakthrough will come out of the upcoming G8 Energy Security conference.  Time will tell.

Bob Shaw in Phx,AZ  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

"Soldiers make very poor farmers"

?  An odd conclusion.  How good are lawyers, engineers, professors and bloggers?

Blackwater shooters get paid 750$ a day.  If one of these guys wants your food they have the weapons and will to do it.  You'd be better of marrying your daughters to guys like this and hoping they can farm.

ask your Dr. about lithium

The cracks about lithium, mescaline etc. are getting old.
I've got a theory about this. People hear these insults from Howard Stern wannabe DJs, or Rush Limbaugh wannabe radio pundits, and there's either a bunch of goons paid to laugh, or a laugh track, or wisecrack SFX, and they laugh.

Then they try it themselves, not realizing the material isn't really funny, and wonder why no one's laughing but themselves.

Point taken, but I doubt that Rush is making many medication jokes these days.
This engineer (and blogger) is a former soldier himself.
I suspect I'm not alone. Oilrig Medic is himself a blogger and ex-soldier. =P

Historically speaking (Carthage, Rome, Greek city states, etc), mercenaries are pretty lousy soldiers, except under certain circumstances. Lack of motivation (beyond personal profit) being key.

Mercenaries historically will renegotiate their contracts from time to time as it suits them.  It is relatively easy to defend your own land (Waco Tx) against a superior force because of intimate knowledge of the land/house.

My point about engineers/bloggers/lawyers etc is very few of us know how to farm and those of us that do have never had to its has only been supplemental.

If my lithium comment offended anyone I apologize. I was joking that the Earthmarine/detrivore concept is sci-fi delusional and obscures an otherwise positive message.

I enjoy gardening, but a farmer I'm not. ^_^
But I suspect most of us may get to try our hand at it at some point in the future.
I had a squad leader who I am pretty sure was a sociopath.  Back before Y2k I filled up all my spare gas tanks and bought a chainsaw for firewood and like 2 months worth of food.  I asked him what he was doing and he said "I have an AR15 and the skill to use it.  I can take any supplies other people have stockpiled for me..."

The point of security home personal or other wise is not to be an easy target.  Make the bad guys go after the weaker part of the herd.

Most of the US supplemental gardening is easy.  I suspect a PO crisis will be slow enough to allow us to learn how to farm.

Hypothetical/thought provoker: How big of a fuster cluck do you think Y2K would have been if all of the software engineers didn't decide until say December 29, 1999 to start weeding out the goof in critical software?
Greetings all esp. Totoneilia and others that discuss various post-peak scenarios. I have in my previous posts stated enough along with using this same screen name to give away much of my identity. Simply stated I have a VERY CLOSE AFFILIATION WITH BLACKWATER and have the background to back it up. That said: "soldiers (and Mercs) make poor farmers" is out of place and simply not true. Because my background is X does not mean that I am stupid. I do not consider farming rocket surgery. The American public vastly underestimates the Special operations community personnel primarily because of poor representation vis-i-vis media. I do not even own a television because I consider it to be the equivilant of nursing at the brest of mediocrity....The majority of SO personnel have above average intelligence and significant IQ (whatever that may be) scores to be the focus of much study and group analysis....suprise yourself and do some background work....I always felt that if the enemy was carrying a gun then he must not mind dying and if that was the case I didn't mind killing him....but I'm no Nazi and killin is serious moral business in the professional world. Please do not mistake SO professionals for nazi stormtroopers pitchforking babbies for money. We have families and love our children dearly. Some social facts defy explination surrounding our inability to stay married but the vast majority of SO guys desire the same human interaction most people.

More later...but very respectfully TG80 sends

Hello TG80,

Thxs for responding.  I profoundly agree with your points, but I see where the brevity of my posts can sometimes misconvey the wrong info.

I have had earlier discussions with other Blackwater Associates in the Yahoo:AlasBabylon forum.  I have no doubts as to your ability to assimilate into a biosolar lifestyle, probably easier that most of us.  But your unique skill specialization is best optimized, in the early stages, to the outward defensive focus until the invasive threat subsides.  The defense of biosolars, so that they can hopefully optimize a surplus unhindered to share with their protectors, is crucial.  After that, the beating of most swords into plowshares will be welcomed by all.

Zimbabwean soldiers cannot be compared to modern Special Forces--I regret that some made this connection due to my posting.  I was using Mugabe's mismanagement of farming as an illustrative example of the wrong way to build a biosolar community.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

I stumbled upon this sub-thread and was quite happy to see the discussion.

My understanding of history is that the Romans used the promise of  farmland as an incentive to be a soldier or centurion. Being fluent in the both ancient Greek and Latin, I can assure you that farming and soldiering were quite intertwined 2000 years ago.

If you want the modern perspective on this, you can watch Gladiator with Russell Crowe.

Ever heard of the Elysian Fields? What do you think those were? Fenway Park? Muslims have their fantasy of 99 black-eyed virgins, or whatever. The Romans liked the idea of growing wheat.

Study of the Thirty Years War will provide a slightly different but oddly similar picture.

Soldiers are good farmers. Soldiers were good farmers. Soldiers can be good farmers. Soldiers are farmers. What am I missing?

Hello Oil CEO,

Thxs for the historical info addition to the discussion.  Any sane soldier would prefer 'No Thanks--I like Empty Tanks' to the alternative.  Hopefully, this offers our best chance to avert the '3 Days of the Condor' scenario and will set us on a course of Heinberg's Powerdown.  Recall the retired generals reminding the active military staff to re-examine their Pledge to the Constitution, not their willingness to follow Presidential orders.  It seems this would be our last chance to avert the worst.  I hate it when global forces are left hanging on such a precariously frayed thin string. Yikes!

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

I think a good deal of the inputs is coming (or will come) eventually from coal. I recall some ethanol producers are considering switching to coal for the destillation process, which is the single most energy-intensive process in ethanol production.

As a process of converting coal to a liquid fuel ethanol makes a little bit more sense, but I suspect a CTL plant would be ultimately a much better idea. Unfortunately all of this hardly matters here; the decision about ethanol is already made - elections are coming and votes from the corn-producing states need to be BrOUGHT.

Hi LevinK,

Unfortunately I can't see CTL as anything but another boondogle, very much like E85.

I recently came across this:

http://energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Hearings.Testimony&Hearing_ID=1544&Witn ess_ID=3664

To cut a long story short it is evidence from a mining exec (Marion Loomis) about the fabulous potential of CTL given to a US Senate committee.

Unfortunately if you use his figures on CTL (I assume being from a miner they are, if anything, optimistic) and then add in US coal mining stats you come to some pretty disappointing conclusions about CTL.

Basically if you convert the entire US daily production of coal (around 2.7 million short tons) into oil it yields about 1.9 million barrels of "liquid" (to use his term) a day.

The US currently consumes around 22 million bpd of the genuine article.

The investment needed to build enough CTL plants to accomplish this (according to Marion) is 1.23 trillion US dollars. This does not include the investment needed to double US coal production to replace all the coal now being fed to CTL plants. I have no figures to work it out but if someone knows the worth (market capitalisation - would that be a fair estimate?) of the US coal mining industry maybe they could let us know so we can add it to our 1.23 trillion dollar estimate.

But anyway - if US coal mining or imports of coal were greatly increased and the investment for CTL could be found then we could use that synthetic oil to grow corn to make into ethanol!!!

Why not just use the synthetic oil to make syndiesel in the first place?

It's seems crazy to me, but then again they are already pouring out tons and tons of processed natural gas onto the fields to grow corn to make ethanol when it could also be made into syndiesel, so why should we expect a more sensible use of coal?


Sorry I multiplied when I should have divided. Back to grade school math for me.

2.7 million short tons of coal yields around 3.8 million barrels of 'liquid'.

About 17% of US daily consumption.

Even though that is double what I stated above, I still don't think that changes the substance of the argument.

CTL is a false hope. And it is still crazy to use synthetic oil made from coal to make fertilizer to grow corn to make ethanol.


OK, quite a lot of assumptions here again. For me... that phrase "replacing our current oil consumption" is a very bogus one. Will our consumption remain the same in say 20 years? I doubt there will be a physical possibility to do that - IMO there is so much slack in the system that we can sustainably go from 22mln to 10mln bpd in 20 years without experiencing too much pain. Consider that in India and China 8 times as many people (2.5 bln.) are using almost half of that energy (6-7 mln.bpd).

Now 3.8 mln.bpd is a whole 38% of 10mln.bpd. And 1.3 trillion over 20 years is 65 billion per year. Sounds too far from insignificant or impossible, doesn't it?

Don't get me wrong - I agree that CTL will not be a panacea. But compared to our current consumption any technology looks like a drop in the bucket. Taken separately you have to rule them all out one by one. The only reasonable path to take is the combination of them, and CTL will most certainly be one of them.

22 downto 10 in 20 years is 4 percent less each year.

22x^20 = 10;
x = e^(ln(10/22)/20) =~ 0.96 .

Thanx... 4% doesn't look like some impossible target does it?
Where is the coal going to come from?

Can coal mining really double in the next 20 years while oil consumption is halved?

.7 tons of coal = 1 barrel of 'liquid'

Unless that ratio can be improved or massive investment for new coal mines is found to go along with massive investment in CTL, CTL will provide only a small amount of future liquid fuel requirements.

I can't see it providing any more than a few hundred million barrels per year. But every little bit helps. And I agree taking these things in isolation is pointless. The future will be a grab bag of all sorts of energy sources.


I agree completely - the CTL efficiency and limits of coal supply will hinder it. My WAG for CTL in the medium term (20 years) is also around yours - 1mln.bpd ~ 255 mln. tons of coal dedicated to CTL yearly. More of it is not realistic, but my point is that in 20 years 1mln.bpd. may be worth much more than now.
I'll just note that in her speech, she referred to cellulosic ethanol, but the adjective was dropped in some news coverage. Assuming that the appropriate technology exists, the input mass is much greater than for a process based only on the grain. Of course, a technology that can produce ethanol from corn stalks with a positive net energy would almost certainly be able to process other biomass. In that situation, for a farmer looking to "grow" energy, corn, with its heavy requirements for water and fertilizer, has got to be one of the worst choices for what to grow.
Iogen says on their front page that "Cellulose Ethanol is ready to go" but as I understand it, they keep delivering ethanol from their one plant to more and more media events.  If we think delivering pilot ethanol from Canada to Gleneagles, Scotland, is progress, then sure.

But really, I don't think we should build out E85 gas stations until we see at least a few production plants running.

Very nice. Very concise. Very convincing argument.

It's clear this ethanol tidal wave isn't about science or BTU equivalencies, it's about money. Who is putting those big $$$ into Hillary Clinton's PAC pocket?    

I guess that characterizes me as a moonbat instead of a patrician. Let me say it plainly...


There are some pretty strong proponents of ethanol, who have entrenched interests in maintaining the status quo (or at least a belief that the status quo can be maintained): ADM, GM, Exxon, and every candidate for president come to mind.
ADM, because they stand to profit tremendously in the short term from the use of ethanol.
GM, because they can rebrand themselves as being in the forefront of technological change and American energy independence without actually having to do anything.
Exxon, because I believe that this company understands peak oil, and knows that there are obscene profits to be had in the near future, if they can just hold out some hope for ehtanol to save the American consumer's butt.
Every politician running for president knows that the road to the WH begins in IA. Only one national political leader, Al Gore, knows that ethanol won't help us much, if at all, but he's not running for anything.
Ethanol is just another ruse for people to kick the ball down the road, without having to face those hard choices which become harder and harder the further down the road we go.
The road to the Presidency begins in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, although the Democrats may try to change that to states more representative of the nation.  Nonetheless, Corn is King in Iowa, and anything improving the fortunes of corn and soybeans farmers improves the fortunes of Iowans.  I expect that we'll be hearing a lot about soybean biodiesel before the Iowa caucuses are over.

Most presidential candidates look ahead to the general elections which will be held in November 2008.  Several battleground states are also corn, soybeans and auto states where elections have been relatively close in the most recent presidential elections.  They are Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and perhaps Missouri.  Illinois is solid Dem territory and the Reps have Indiana sewn up. The Dems lost Iowa by a very, very slim margin and came very close in Ohio.  Northern and western Ohio is corn and soybeans territory, and there is still a lot of automotive-related manufacturing in Ohio.  Although money is extremely important in national campaigns, any analyst would be foolish to discount the importance of local party regulars and office-holders.  Then there are, surprise, surprise, the voters themselves!  No candidate, Dem or Rep, is going to vote against ethanol and biodiesel any time soon.  

There seems to be a certain symetry between Hilary pushing for ethanol and Bush proposing a conversion to hydrogen. They both have their constituencies and political advantages; but ultimately neither of these energy pathways has a practical future.

Which, to me, shows that the political establishment doesn't know what to do and is grasping at straws. And, as Bill Clinton once said "Americans want a leader who is stong and wrong, to one who is right and weak."

Both parties are going along with this "wisdom," and thus we'll spend a great deal of national wealth, energy, resources and expertise crowding into a series of dead ends.

But since we're on this thread; is there really a practical alternative to gasoline?

So far as I can tell, the practical alternative to petroleum in general is:
  • PHEV's for personal transport.
  • For freight, dual-mode road/rail trucks running on electrified rails and perhaps direct-carbon fuel cells when off rails.

We can make enough electricity and charcoal to run things that way (DCFC's are up to 80% efficient).  We can't run things on ethanol from conventional sources, that's for sure.
I don't think that there is any one alternative that will replace gasoline, diesel or any one oil product, although some alternatives may work in many areas.  

Two ideas, though, that will be crucial almost everywhere here in the U.S. will be conservation and relocalization.  Another is electrified rail of all types, an alternative that has been thoroughly discussed here.

Hybrid electric, pluggable and not, may help power vehicles from city buses to very small cars, allowing people to get around their own area for distances not doable by foot or bicycle.  I expect that more drivers will become pedestrian and bicycle friendly because more drivers and their friends and family will be spending more time using those two transportation options.  I have read, too, that larger vehicles, including buses and garbage pickup, could use hybrid fossil fuel/hydraulic drive which is supposed to be more efficient than today's hybrid electrics.  It is also possible that Ballard will get its hydrogen hybrid city bus going.  The hydrogen could be generated with off-peak or surplus renewable energy, for example.

All this electrification of transport must be matched, of course, by a sufficient electrical power supply.  Some electricity for pluggable hybrids may come from currently under utilized middle-of-the-night baseload generating capacity, principally coal, nukes and hydro.  I hope that renewables will be maximized with development of electrical storage.  Daytime conservation might help.  The drawbacks of nukes and coal have been discussed here at length, so I don't intend to address them here.

Perhaps ethanol may make sense under certain local conditions, particularly if the ethanol is used extensively in the local area.  In another thread, a farmer from Iowa wrote that in the nothern 2/3 of Iowa and adjacent areas of Nebraska and Illinois, corn yields are up to 200 bushels per acre without concomitant increases in fertilizer use.  He said that with yields like that, the EROEI was significantly better.  

In another thread, a poster described an ethanol setup in Texas in which the cattle and pigs were housed farily close to the ethanol plant, so that methane from animal waste digestors in the area could be piped to the ethanol plant to fire the boilers.  

Corn does not have to be the ethanol feedstock everywhere.  In the south, sorghum may work.  In the north, sugar beets may reign.  If enzymatic production of cellulosic ethanol gets going, other areas may use different feedstocks, but I don't advocate removing wastes from farm fields.  I have read on a few obscure sites that the enzymatic process could be used on paper that cannot be recycled in other ways.

In summary, I think that we must think about conservation and using any locally available resources to provide distribute necessary goods and to enable people to get to the retail outlet or producer to obtain them.  I don't expect the same lifestyle, but I do have some hope that we may be able to keep a 1920's to late 1940's life going.  From what my parents and grandparents say about those eras, they didn't have much "stuff" but they did have enough of the basics and were at least as happy as people are today.

It sure is all about money, BIG money:

Between 1995-2003, USDA dished out $37 billion in corn crop subsidies. Out of that money, the top 10 percent of recipients were paid 68% of that loot.

I wouldn't mind getting more friendly with the USDA, that's for sure.

The following Statement of Senator John McCain on Amendment to Prohibit Extension of Ethanol Subsidies, Mar 11, 1998:

"Mr. President, enough is enough.  The American taxpayers have subsidized the ethanol industry, with guaranteed loans and tax credits, for more than 20 years.  Since 1980, government subsidies for ethanol have totaled more than $10 billion.  The Finance Committee amendment to ISTEA, if not stricken, would give another $3.2 billion in tax breaks to ethanol producers.
"Current law provides tax credits for ethanol producers which are estimated to cost the Treasury $770 million a year in lost revenue, and the Congressional Research Service estimates that loss may increase to $1 billion by the year 2000.  These huge tax credits effectively increase the tax burden on other businesses and individual taxpayers.
"...the Department of Energy has provided statistics showing that it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than the amount of energy that gallon of ethanol contains.
"Finally, let me quote Stephen Moore, of the CATO Institute, who puts it very succinctly in a recent paper: `...[V]irtually every independent assessment--by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Budget Office, NBC News and several academic journals--has concluded that ethanol subsidies have been a costly boondoggle with almost no public benefit.'  
"So why do we continue to subsidize the ethanol industry?  I think James Bovard of the CATO Institute put it best in a 1995 policy paper: `...[O]ne would be hard-pressed to find another industry as artificially sustained as the ethanol industry.  The economics of ethanol are such that, for the industry to survive at all, massive trade protection, tax loopholes, contrived mandates for use, and production subsidies are vitally necessary.'"


That was then, this is now:
"The Arizona Republican, who once described ethanol as "good for neither the environment nor the consumer," said that rising oil costs make the alternative fuel worthy of another look."
"At $10 a barrel (for oil), I don't think ethanol was a very viable option," he said before an appearance to bolster the Republican gubernatorial campaign of Jim Nussle. "At $60 or $70 a barrel, I think it needs to be examined. There's also national security implications."

Des Moines Register, April 14, 2006


Ah yes, classic politics.  Sway with the wind, they do.

However, I will point out that even with the subsidies, ethanol has ALWAYS been more expensive than gasoline.  And always will be, unsubsidized.  See for yourself:


Even though ethanol is more expensive than gasoline somehow the 10% ethanol blended gasoline at my local station manages to stay 10 cents cheaper than regular unleaded.
That's because of the subsidy. Take $0.51 a gallon off the price of ethanol above (and add it to your tax bill).


Isn't the $0.51 per gallon 'subsidy' was from the 5.1 cents of gas tax that isn't collected from the ethanol blend. I've been taking it off my tax bill whenever I fill up using it.
Isn't the $0.51 per gallon 'subsidy' was from the 5.1 cents of gas tax that isn't collected from the ethanol blend.

No. The $0.51 is a blender credit that brings down the net cost for the purchaser of ethanol. So, a refiner can afford to pay the ethanol producer $3.00 a gallon and sell it for $2.49 and break even. Without that credit (or mandates), refiners wouldn't touch ethanol. You can check, but I think the federal tax is exactly the same for E10 and for gasoline. There might be a tax break for various state taxes.


Two comments:
1) If we really are facing a liquid fuels shortage (not that the political motivation and momentum is backing corn ethanol for that reason), then using large scale coal to steam separate the ethanol from water WOULD make sense as a tranistional stage, even if it were a net energy loser. I dont think this is the situation yet and we should make loftier goals than the weak ones being promoted. However, in a pinch, we could use corn and coal to trade up the energy quality ladder, even at a BTU loss.  CTL would be more efficient, but that is 10 years away.

2)I think the 'smart' ethanol proponents understand at least part of your argument and agree that cellulosic is the ultimate plan. But this is betting A LOT on the come. To set up national infrastructure on an idea that has not scaled beyond a tabletop is misleading at best and disastrous at worst. What if Tad Patzek is right and we get 10 tons of switchgrass from the first harvest, then 5 tons the next year and 2 the next and zero the fourth? In my opinion, the people who are looking 'long term' promoting ethanol are taking all the 'good' things that might be developed over time but ignoring the 'bad' things that will arise over time. The ethanol infrastructure is being built on a best case scenario. Your numbers show what can be done TODAY - they might be able to dramatically improve on those numbers using miscanthus or some such, but then again maybe not. Its a big bet they are taking with our future.

I agree that this post should be sent to decisionmakers, not as the final word, but to give them a flavor of what they are really proposing.

Absolutely, coal makes more economic sense, and plants are beginning to do this. But it pretty much kills the renewable argument. The environmental consequences of using coal to produce ethanol with a marginal energy return must also be considered.

Finally, if we are going to use coal, we could use it more efficiently to make methanol as Sasol already does. That technology exists.


I absolutely agree that ethanol can not replace all gasoline consumption.  As of today however no known energy conversion source is ready to replace all the current usage so when we peak we are screwed.

Please see the link for an alternative outlook and numbers on ethanol.  This site uses data a few years old but clearly points out the gains in efficiency being made in the ethanol industry.  No reason those efficiencies will not continue.

Two statements for all to ponder.
1)  What should farmers do to increase their energy efficiency and improve their monetary profitability?
   A) get more yield per acre via more inputs and genetics.
   B) grow a different crop.
   c) Reduce energy inputs and accept a lower yield per  acre.

I know the answer to this (based on USDA studies) but want all to research and come to their own conclusions.

2)  Everyone cites every possible input and cost for ethanol production.  This includes all inputs, liquid fuel, fermentation, cogeneration, etc.  I have never seen every energy expense for the finding, drilling, maintaining, transporting, refining, distribution, etc. for petroleum to a gallon of gas.  What is the REAL energy cost of a gallon of gas?

There are a lot of ships, trucks, planes, and equipment burning energy to maintain a flow of liquid fuel.  What is the net net energy gain just to find and liberate this stored energy reserve.  Notice I said stored energy.  There is no new energy capture in fossil fuels, only liberation of stored energy.  

All alternatives must do two things, capture real time energy and convert it to a transportation fuel.  Fossil fuel has a huge advantage because it only deals with the conversion side of the equation.  We are seeing how bad even this conversion is with difficult substrates like oil sands and shale.  This is with the energy already sitting there, no cost to trap it.  So when alternatives are giving a net positive from plowing the ground through harvest to liquid fuel I think we should be careful in how soon we dismiss it as never being useful in contributing to our overall energy balance.

This in no way says we can replace current consumption with ethanol.  But nothing can replace current consumption.  WE MUST REDUCE CONSUMPTION!  Either by not using less or by huge advances in efficiencies, or both.  The sooner we get on this path the better.

The key "micro" issue here is the Federal thrust for E85 infrastructure.  If fueling "E85 everywhere" is impossible, then we are looking at huge waste in both time and money, as well as in opportunity costs.  We could be looking at how to stretch those gas gallons ... but we won't if we all expect E85 at the corner station.

Agreed, but does it make sense to have E85 stations in the midwest near ethanol production and use only E10 elswhere or not at all?  Not shipping grain (for any reason) out of the midwest will save a lot of energy alone.  Converting corn to liquids and coproducts near production is a drive for efficiency by the people on the ground here.  Not theoretical calculations in some far off place.

The flaw in everyones argument, to date, is the averaging in the calculations.  The average corn yield for Iowa is approaching 180 bushels per acre  This is without any irrigation and using conventional farming techniques.  And in the heart of the state (lop off the bottom two hilly tiers of counties) the average yield is well over 200 bu/acre.  The EROEI for ethanol production using those numbers is far above the statistics being sited on TOD and other sites.    

The national average for corn in 2005 was a much lower 148 bushels per acre.  Considering that Iowa was the number 1 yielding state followed closely by Illinois and Nebraska most years means there were a lot of states that had really dismal yield even with irrigation.  The EROEI in those places will drag the national EROEI down for this feedstock.

Trying to use corn as raw material in Texas, New Mexico, California, or even Alabama does not generate the same EROEI as the heart of the corn belt.  But including those production numbers in a fixed ethanol production process makes corn to ethanol (or any biomass to ethanol) look much worse than the optimum conversion, both for Energy return and Profitability.  I am still seeing calculations printed using an average yield of 100 bu/ac.  This has no bearing on corn to ethanol in the midwest.

The devil is in the details here and small increases in efficiencies in growing the crop (like producing twice the yield with less inputs) have very large impact on the total EROEI of the system.

What I am arguing for on TOD is to caution people to stop looking for a solution to peaking petroleum.  We need lots of little solutions by geographic region to replace a significant % of Fossil fuel.  Corn ethanol might be the most efficient route in the Midwest because grass grows great here.  Might even be better than cellulosic because trees don't grow well here.  This in no way means we should export this concept to other regions of the country.  I am a researcher working in areas very close to biofuels, not an engineer, and there are not enough data collected by researchers yet to provide engineers information to build the optimum ethanol plant.  Too many improvements in enzymes, cogeneration, etc. just in the last few years.  This industry is still in its infancy, lets not throw the baby out with the bath water.

The problem is that most vehicles currently can't handle high ethanol content gas.  We need true flex fuel vehicles that can move about the country filling up with whatever fuel is dominant in that area.  Straight gasoline someplaces, E10/gas, E85/gas, NG, and maybe even methanol all have geographic regions of optimum.  And I haven't even started on diesels or electric yet.  Currently only gas and E10 can be used in most passenger vehicles.  Consumers have limited options and this is a real disincentive for alternatives fuels to ever get established and drive for optimum efficiency, in the small geographic locations where they have the highest EROEI.

I agree with the old "silver bb" argument, that every little thing helps, and that together these things might add up to a solution (even if no "sliver bullet" is ever found).

My main complaint is against "E85 everywhere" and sure, if ethanol proves to be a good local "silver bb" go for it.

For what it's worth, I never felt moved to argue against the Governors' Ethanol Coalition for what the do in their own states/regions.  I only worry when the approach the Fed and shape (perturb?) national policy.

Yep, we have a leadership problem at the Federal level.  I include both Whitehouse and Congress in this statement.  In the vacuum we are getting a hodgepodge of local approaches, some being diametrically opposed to each other when looked at on a National level.  This is a stupid way to run a country.
Look at the hubert peak oil site and find the link to the scientific american article.  Read this carefully! Created in the 70's it gives the net energy absorbed by plants--  It looks very bleak for humans at the present population/consumption.  Combined with the information in the hirsch report you just have to ask yourself.  Do they know and expect total disaster and have tossed in the towel?
Hi RR,

Coal might make more sense than ethanol but I still struggle to see it as any kind of viable alternative (even if you ignore enviromental concerns).

If you see my reply to LevinK above my back of the envelope scribbling based on Marion Loomis's numbers paint a pretty bleak picture for CTL.

Even if we convert all coal currently mined in the US into coal it would only replace about 9% of current US oil consumption.

Is Marion wrong? Is my maths worse than I thought? Or is CTL really just another boondoggle?


sorry that should be 17% of US consumption.


In point 2 you bring up something I've been worrying about since first hearing of cellulosic ethanol production. As a farm-owner, I would be very very leary of harvesting crops from my land for cellulosic ethanol production. The main reason being that those harvested crops that leave my land take more than just carbon with them.

Even if we use the simplified model that reduces the large number of nutrients needed by plants to just nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (N, P, K), my fertilizer bill would still be enormous. If the waste from the ethanol extraction were returned to the soil, there's still the problem of the loss of carbon. Organic matter in soil must constantly be renewed or soil literally turns to dust.

My feeling is that sustainable production of feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production is going to be far less productive than this first round of calculations suggests.

As usual, I hope I'm wrong.


You are right. Simple physics do hold even in Calgary. I would advise against hoping that you are wrong as that would mean that the laws of physics no longer apply in our universe.

As the old paradigm holds and has held for thousands of years -- first we harvest the woods, then we overfarm the fields, then we overgraze with cattle, then with goats, then we have a desert.

Move to a new unspoiled area and repeat. If all goes well, we should completely denude the planet in another 500 years.

Wish us luck.

"As the old paradigm holds and has held for thousands of years -- first we harvest the woods, then we overfarm the fields, then we overgraze with cattle, then with goats, then we have a desert. "

I think they just found desertification to be reversing in Africa.  If the above statement is correct why do we still have agriculture in China and Egypt and many other places after thousands of years?

Speaking of which did you ever go to China?

The carbon content of biomass comes from atmosperic CO2.
Sorry if this comment is way off base, but here goes...
The 77228 BTUs of energy input to produce the ethanol presumably includes the fossil fuels used to grow the corn (fertilizers, running the equipment, etc.).  Therefore, at least some of that energy is already included in our annual total fuel consumption.  So, I think for net addition of energy as a percentage of our annual fuel consumption, you would have to subtract out from the 77228 BTUs the energy that is already being used to grow the corn (as opposed to whatever energy is needed to convert the corn, once grown, into ethanol).  If what I said is right, it still doesn't detract from the basic point that all this ethanol hype is ridiculous.  I'm convinced just based on your first two paragraphs.
hindela -

If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that if we are growing the corn already, then some of the energy required to do that is already included in our total energy consumption.

That might be partially true if the total amount of corn grown remains the same as it is now and that the amount of corn devoted to ethanol increases by the exact same amount that corn devoted to food use decreases. But there is no indication whatsoever that such will be the case. More likely, the amount of corn for food will remain the same, but an additional amount of corn will be grown for ethanol.

Thus, the energy use associated with corn for ethanol must be evaluated on its own merits because it represents additional corn production, and, as such,  is not 'already included'

At least that's the way I see it.

I agree that if additional corn is grown to convert into ethanol, then total energy input, growing plus converting, should be included.  But, the original post talks about using a percentage of our current corn harvest and, yes, I am assuming that we would grow that corn anyway.  When Robert talks about using 100% of our corn harvest, I don't think he is talking about doubling the corn harvest from its current level.  My bad if that is what he meant.
After someone here mentioned The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan a couple of weeks ago, I got a copy and read it.  Absolutely fascinating.  In particular, he talks about the government policies that led to the vast overproduction of corn--and the market response to that overproduction.  I came away with the sense that we could divert quite a bit of our corn production to something like ethanol before it would begin to have much impact on the quantity available for any of the more straightforward food-like uses (sweetcorn, corn flakes, cattle and chicken feed, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.).

Of course prices would change.  At the moment, corn is so cheap that corn-based inputs into processed food are much cheaper than the old-fashioned alternative--enough so that many processed foods are made of almost nothing but corn.  (He has a great description of a McNugget, made from bits of (corn-fed) chicken, stuck together with corn-based ingredients, covered with corn starch to give it a crispy coating, dyed a golden brown with corn-based dyes, and then fried in corn oil.)

I'm waiting for the paperback.
Another engrossing book on the subject is:

Grassland : the history, biology, politics, and promise of the American prairie
by Richard Manning.

Don't forget about your local library, if you have one.

Additional corn production?

Not going to happen. Where is the land going to come from?

Genetically modified corn has not lived up to its much hyped claims and, should one care to make a cursory investigation into how corn is grown, the amount of fossil fuel expended actually grows with increased use of GM corn.

Soil degredation is proceeding at an alarming rate everywhere in the world and mining the soil for ethanol production to continue an unsustainable lifestyle is insane. It will only hasten the desertification process.

The technofairies are at it again, zipping around tapping their little fairy dust dripping wands onto specious ethanol speculations.

Yes, we can enrich Archer Daniels Midlands (ADM) for a while with vast corporate welfare schemes designed to enrich the few and ignore the reality of our closed system, but is that a logical option? Why in the world do we insist on applying untenable solutions.

We need to work towards decentralization, super-efficient rail systems, local food production, relocation of people living in energy intensive regions such as the southwest, reduction of the birth rate; development of regional knowledge datastores with information on how to live sustainably including what plants to use, when to plant, how to rotate crops, how to store crops, how to create clothing, raise animals, slaughter animals, preserve meat, raise draft animals, use draft animals, take care of the health of draft animals; the development of natural wetlands designed to handle runoff and process human waste overburden (human waste that has not been returned to the land for fertilization purposes), the recovery of high-grade metals from landfills and auto-graveyards, development of universal health care based around preventative medicine, and the list goes on and on.

These absolutely imperative issues that trump any attempt to continue the untenable automobile paradigm must be addressed immediately.

If you think we will somehow come to an energy stasis through ethanol, you are insane. As any simple (or complex) analysis of the energy cycle involved in the creation of ethanol from corn or so-called cellulosic feedstocks indicates, it is IMPOSSIBLE to supply current use patterns. Should we be so dumb as to pursue this anyway, what will we do when the population continues to grow? Just enjoy the ever-increasing size of the underclass? How will we feed them, given that land will be needed for our precious automobiles? How do we manage widespread social unrest caused by this growing underclass? What do we do when our country, the good ole US of A, becomes a hotbed of insurgency?

How do we replace the land we destroy through intensive mono-cropping? As the amount of viable land continues to decrease, who will we not feed? Who makes that choice?

I find it distressing that while most people would agree that purposely starving people would be bad, the free marketeers all seem to think that forced starvation through indirect market forces is okay.

I presume everyone here knows that the U.S. has passed a milestone regarding its food security. The U.S. now must import food to meet its needs. While that ratio is extremely small, assigning any calories towards the continued support of the automobile paradigm is inherently making us more and more likely to face starvation.

Sometimes I wonder about the quality of thought on this site.

Don't worry about quality of thought. Witnessing thought at all is a small miracle
I wonder how that margin of food imports could be cleaned up if we were able to do with food overconsumption what we (on this site, anyway) are eager to do with fuel consumption?

As for Quality of thought.. I find a pretty good wheat/chaff ratio here, and then the doomers give us a floor to the chasm, or maybe a baseline, while the techno-fairies flit around overhead and make some light to read by..  pretty!

"How do we replace the land we destroy through intensive mono-cropping? "

Maybe don't monocrop....

"The U.S. now must import food to meet its needs. While that ratio is extremely small, assigning any calories towards the continued support of the automobile paradigm is inherently making us more and more likely to face starvation."

The US does import food, but doesn't have to. The implication that the US is facing a calorie shortage that could be made worse by reduction of sugar and high fructose corn syrup production is bizzare.

Has anyone done calculations on how far one could drive on the average American's annual sugar consumption?

I suspect that as agriculture increasingly becomes a source for fuel, prices of inefficient competing commodities - especially sugar and meat - will go up. The increased prices of these items will let consumers choose between which use of land provides the most utility.

The Machavelian nightmare: the 'haves' outbidding the 'have-nots' for that biomass. The food of the 3rd world bcoming the fuel for SUV's. Very plausible in the global economy.
I find it distressing that while most people would agree that purposely starving people would be bad, the free marketeers all seem to think that forced starvation through indirect market forces is okay.

[sarcasm]why not it will fit in right next to their plan to have the poor die of thirst by privatizing the worlds water supply then charging a year's worth  of earnings just for the connection fee[/sarcasm]

Interesting point. It still takes the same amount of energy to produce the ethanol whether it comes from fossil fuels or ethanol. So if you use inputs derived from ethanol, you have to subtract them from the ethanol output. I think either way it is a drop in the bucket.
The part of the argument about turning our entire corn harvest into ethanol is just illustrative, to provide an understanding of just how little ethanol can actually contribute toward our fuel needs. True, we would still grow corn, so some of the energy inputs would be there anyway. But we have increased the corn harvest because of the growth in ethanol prodcution. Also, if it wasn't going into making ethanol, the corn by-products would be going toward corn syrup and things like that.

To do a true displacement analysis would be a massive undertaking. The above is an approximation. But the BTU equivalent calculation is not affected. It is the same regardless. The bottom line is that the amount of grain ethanol we can reasonably produce can't justify this massive E85 campaign. It is a distraction, and lulls people into complacency.


Brazil has 10,000 sq miles of land devoted to sugar cane(that's 21,000 sq mi total, only half of which is for ethanol) producing approximately
300,000 barrels of ethanol per day in brazil...

It would require

10,000/300,000 *20,000,000 = 667,000 sq miles of sugar cane crops to grow enough oil for the US.  x4 for the world which is 2.6 million square miles.  And don't forget, the world only has 7 million square miles of arable land (not all in tropical climes).

667,000 sq miles of sugar cane crops?  That is slightly smaller than the area of Mexico.  Pipe dream.

Keep in mind sugar cane is the most energy efficient way to get ethanol too.  Also keep in mind that sugar cane only grows in tropical climes.

Ethanol as a long term solution to our energy needs is a ludicrous proposition.

While it may be slightly cheaper to produce ethanol, consider that the price of gas at the pump sets the price of E85 until the supply of E85 outstrips that of oil. As in if everyone has a flex vehicle and E85 sellers can jack the pump price to slightly less than that of oil.  They're going to sell out with either a cheap price or an expensive price so long as it's slightly cheaper than oil and in smaller supply.

Yeah, but clearly we're going to have to cut back on our energy use.  That is true regardless of which alternative or alternatives we turn to.  So, although the magnitude of ethanol production needed is absurd, we won't need that much, or in any case we won't get that much.  
Everytime I hear the number: 300 billion gallons of gasoline sold per day in the US...the solution has to include driving less.

A combination of driving less / plug-in cellulose ethanol vehicles could probably go a long way.

woops, make that 300 million, not billion
You hit the nail on the head. That's one reason I get so worked up over this. We can't hold onto these false solutions and think we don't have to confront the real problem: Too much consumption. That has to be tackled in an aggressive way.


I read the transcript of her address and it does include many instances where Clinton discussed conservation and creating large tax incentives to do so.  Her plan almost entailed a radical restructuring of the current economy to get us away from oil (though mildly worded to dampen the effect).  Whether she truly believes any of this or was merely pandering to some environmental base is unclear.

BTW, 1st post.  I love this site and its discussions.  

Yeah, I don't want to look like I am just picking on Hillary. I read the speech, and she made a lot of good points. She just made the mistake of making the E85 references just as I was getting ready to write this article.


Yes, I read it as well. Besides the ethanol issue, I was extremely disappointed that she never mentioned increased rail services.  She only mentioned making trucks more efficient.  I think she and Bill are very bright about these issues, so it seemed a blatant omission to me IF she really cares about the "good of this country".
I was surprised to learn that the main fossil fuel input in ethanol production is natural gas. Presumably NG fuels the burners used to heat the ethanol-water "beer" mixture and distill the purified ethanol.

In that case, it is not so easy to say that we could just as easily have burned the NG. While engines do exist that work off NG, I believe they are much more of a modification than is necessary to convert a gasoline engine to E85. And in fact virtually no changes are necessary to run off E10.

Derating ethanol's potential by assuming that the NG could just as easily have fueled cars directly ignores this reality. It is much easier to provide an infrastructure for fueling and running cars based on E10 or E85 than on NG.

Lots of our California buses and taxis run on CNG.  FWIW:


All the new buses in Boston run on CNG as well. Forget whatever energy issues are associated - I love breathing water vapor instead of the carcinogens being spewed from the old diesel busses.
I highly recommend Tad Patzek's review paper (which is being updated periodically):

Natural gas is mostly used to make hydrogen which is required for the fertilizer (NH3). It is possible to make the process more sustainable though by electrolyzing water to make hydrogen, but that's more energy intensive (although if done from wind for example it's also less polluting).

If most of the fossil fuel inputs are from natural gas corn ethaonl is essentially another way of doing gas to liquids. (with corn price supports) The thing to ask is whether it is more produces more energy than the direct route. If peak oil causes a liquid fuels shortage but not an energy shortage then expanding ethanol production to replace some of gasoline use could buy a few years to work on other solution.
It would be more efficient to do the direct GTL route, but the capital costs of GTL are prohibitive. You have to have a long-term contract of cheap gas before you are going to plop down several billion dollars of capital. GTL via corn has a poor EROI, but low capital costs.


The way I see it, the real reason many people to push this way is that no additional huge invesments need to be made. The investments in the corn production farms were made gradually over the decades and now can be used relatively easy, at least for the short term.

IMO, ethanol has the potential to save the day for the current harvest; but the legitimate question is if we are supposed to produce much larger crop, what will be the investments needed for buying the land, the equipment etc. I strongly suspect that on a marginal basis investments for CCE (coal to corn to ethanol) will be higher than CM (coal to methanol).

Presumably NG fuels the burners used to heat the ethanol-water "beer" mixture and distill the purified ethanol.

Correct, and is also used to make the fertilizer.

In that case, it is not so easy to say that we could just as easily have burned the NG. While engines do exist that work off NG, I believe they are much more of a modification than is necessary to convert a gasoline engine to E85.

Consider that you had to build an ethanol plant in order to convert the NG to ethanol. There was capital involved there, and continual operating costs. I read over at Green Car Congress that Brazil, interestingly enough, has about 10 times the NG vehicles on the road that we do in the U.S. The conversion is not that difficult. Weigh it against the difficulty of turning natural gas into ethanol.


Arguably the Brazilians have more NG for cars because they don't use it to distill ethanol! (they burn the sugar cane waste for process heat). BTW, has anyone looked at burning the DDG byproduct for ethanol process heat? Or glycerin for biodiesel?
If these numbers are correct, we should dismiss corn ethanol as a significant techno-fix for PO. Next in line is switchgrass... but don't get too excited; read this post first:

(Life in a Grass House, Stuart Saniford)

Maybe someone (other than me) has the time to run the switchgrass numbers through the same analysis? ...

I suspect switchgrass will look better as a strategy for displacing fossil fuels than corn (not a high hurdle if RR is right), but not better enough, especially in the longer-term.

RR, thanks very, very much for your contributions here at TOD.

I did this previously, for switchgrass.

1) Using data from this optimistic 2003 USDA report on cellusic ethanol produced from switchgrass, each acre of switchgrass produces 397.9 gallons of ethanol (from page 22).  
Normal (maximum yield) crop production techniques were used, i.e. artificial fertilizers and open-ended, non-sustainable methods, with minimal biomatter left or returned to the field.

  1. The BTU value of ethanol is around 67% that of gasoline, so each acre produces about 266.6 gallons equivalent of gasoline.

  2. Unfortunately, at that rate, to replace the 140 billion gallons of gasoline per year the US needs would require planting, harvesting, and processing a whopping 525,131,282 acres of land.  
That's 525 million acres.
We don't have 525 million acres of available arable cropland!

A much better use of switchgrass crops than ethanol production would be to crush and pelletize the switchgrass, and burn it for heating.  
You get a much better energy return on your investment with this much simpler approach (no ethanol distillation required, and significantly more caloric energy released vs. burning the ethanol extracted).  
The burned biofuel could partially replace natural gas heating in millions of homes, businesses, and industries in the US alone, partially aleviating the coming natural gas shortfall, and freeing up some natural gas for powering transportation instead.  

Oh, you can grow your switchgrass without fertilizer, quite true, and even be sustainable while doing it.

But yields fall SIGNIFICANTLY when you do, as has been shown, and in marginal soils (which are often marginal due to nutrient deficiencies, thin, hard, or compacted soil, etc), your yield will be negligible.  That is the real point here.
The most efficient approach tested so far is WITH fertilizer, and simply include these inputs into the overall equation.  But even at that, cellulosic ethanol from massive switchgrass growing initiatives is only going to be a small piece of the pie, unless something changes along the way.

A much better use of switchgrass crops than ethanol production would be to crush and pelletize the switchgrass, and burn it for heating.

How do things work out if we burn the switchgrass to produce electricity? Would it free up significant natural gas that could be used for heating (without the problems associated with using a solid fuel for home heating)? I would be much happier to see the government encouraging a more rapid shift towards electrifying transportation -- eg, plug-in hybrids as one starting point -- since I think we will eventually have to go that way. Such vehicles don't care if the electricity is from wind, solar, biomass, or coal.

Burning pellets is not that difficult compared to liquid fuels or gas. Pellets are small (1/2" at most) and pellet heaters have automatic feeders. So you do need a new heater but it's a proven technology with low maintenance. Plus, if you get a fuel leak, all you need to neutralize it is a broom :-)

I generally think the future will reward simple technologies with as few energy conversion steps as possible. With pellets all you need is cutting, drying and pressing, and it scales down really well so you don't need to haul things to some factory & back. As boring as they are, biomass pellets do have benefits.

"I generally think the future will reward simple technologies with as few energy conversion steps as possible. With pellets all you need is cutting, drying and pressing, and it scales down really well so you don't need to haul things to some factory & back. As boring as they are, biomass pellets do have benefits."

I am in total agreement here. The more complex a "solution" is, the more steps it has, and with each your loses from inefficiency are compounding.  Not a smart approach in leaner (energy and economically) times to come. K.I.S.S.

"A much better use of switchgrass crops than ethanol production would be to crush and pelletize the switchgrass, and burn it for heating."

I agree with Fallout regarding burning pelletized biomass directly rather than using the energy-intensive intermediate process of turning it into ethanol, but I think that Lespedeza bicolor (Desmodium b.) would be a better choice than switch grass for pelletization. It's a legume so it fixes nitrogen rather than leaching it from the soil. According to my seed catalog (J.L.Hudson):

Extensively grown in Korea, where it is called 'the miracle plant' since it controls erosion, enriches the soil with its prolific nodules, provides protein-rich livestock feed, and especially for the stems which are a high quality firewood. Yields 2.9 metric tons of fuelwood per hectare cut one year after planting, and 6.1 mt/ha after two years.

I'm not sure why we are only thinking about grasses (corn, switchgrass) for biomass energy production. Are there any agronomists or botanists out there who can suggest less harmful plants?

Right!  What this whole discussion needs is a brainstorming session on just what is possible re biomass-energy.  Other crops than corn, other carriers than ethanol, other processes than just dumb boiling off to separate, and so on.  One obvious one- just take the water-ethanol mix to a site already using any combustion process for space heating, and do the distillation with that combustion  before dumping the heat to the lower temp space needing heating. This changes the energy balance a bit  in favor of ethanol.

And so on.  Best to put all these ideas out in view up front to avoid some smartass opponent bringing them up later in the debate to try to make you look silly.

Besides, you migh find somethng useful that way.

A much better use of switchgrass crops than ethanol production would be to crush and pelletize the switchgrass, and burn it for heating.

I've seen a few days ago a presentation on energy by a professor at my University. He claimed, among other things, that burning oil to produce electricity, and then using that electricity to power a geothermal heat pump to heat a house, is very efficient. In fact, it would be twice as efficient as burning the same amount of oil for heating. This because you take extra energy from the ground. Not sure how efficient it is to burn biomass for electricity, but maybe the same argument holds. The geothermal heat pump is the sort of technology that is available today and could reduce oil and NG consumption a lot. Why don't politicians ever mention it?

Geothermal exchange heat pump
Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium
Because they're clueless, or because they don't think the public will understand it and make them look nerdy instead of decisive?
Well, Mitz, my good thermo Prof told me the same thing in 1948.  I worked on several ways to actually do this, using biomass pellets and even logs.  The technology worked, but "if you can buy a barrel of oil for $15 why do it?".  So here we are, "needing" stuff like this, and not having it.

But as I go along in life, I keep having the same experiences- sure, all kinds of technical miracles are possible, but simplest is always best, just insulate your house very well, use south windows, ventilate at night when cool, and adjust your head to take some ups and downs in temp- and change clothes with the seasons. Works, easy, doesn't mess up the world for the grandkids.

On a less serious note, can you make a corn chip from ethanol byproducts?

Ah, maybe serious:

Mohawk Oil Co. Ltd. currently sells its wheat-to-ethanol fermentation byproducts for animal feed. However, they will soon be producing a food-grade coproduct called Fibrotein at their Minnedosa, Manitoba plant. It has taken three years to obtain the Canadian rights to the product, to do market research and to gain regulatory approval. An official announcement is due imminently (Don O'Connor, personal communication).


A while back I mused that mashed grains might have a "powerbar" consistency ... "Fibrotien" baby!


When are you finished reviewing all of the comments, would you be so kind as to post a "final" copy?

I would love to make a handout of sorts.


   What would the impact BTU wise be of microwave energy for the distillation?
No idea. I have never heard of anyone carrying out a distillation with microwave energy. It should be feasible, but I don't know how much energy input it would take.


Since we know that a conventional electrical resistance heating element (as found in a tea kettle) is all but 100% efficient there is really no need to worry about how good a microwave would be, given that you have your energy for boiling in the form of electricity (Microwaves have losses in the power supply, and magnetron tube, this we know). But we also know that a high efficiency gas burner will do 95% less stack gas temp losses, which is better than an electricy generating station can manage. Thus boiling the beer using electricity only would make sense if the electricity was going to come from a non-thermal source (wind, water, PV) In general using a "high grade" energy source like Electricity to boil water is a foolish waste, save it for running computers, electric motors, etc. But since the whle Ethanol idea is at best one tick away from foolish why not pile on one more silly idea into the mix ;)
Magnetrons are about 50% efficient, so double the energy input for distillation (plus losses in the generation of the electricity to run it).  If you cool the magnetron with the still, you're even energy-wise but way behind on capital and maintenance cost.
When are you finished reviewing all of the comments, would you be so kind as to post a "final" copy?

If nobody finds any major flaws in the math or logic, I will tidy it up this evening and remove the disclaimer.


It might be useful to incorporate a short paragraph that oulines the subsidy issue.

Ethanol costs more than gasoline. The voters should know it.

In this best case scenario, the ratio of energy out/energy in is 1.27. Converting 100% of the corn crop into ethanol, presuming we had a market for the byproducts, would then displace an incredible 2.0% of our annual gasoline consumption.

This is somewhat confusing since previously you stated ethanol could replace 13.3% of gasoline. You may want to clarify it by saying the energy gained (or alleged energy gained if you wish) would replace 2% of gasoline use.

Some more recent projections from the USDA

The 2006/07 corn crop is projected at 10.55 billion bushels
Domestic use for ethanol production (2006/07) increases 34 percent from last year to 2.15 billion bushels while exports increase 6 percent to 2.15 billion.

This is somewhat confusing since previously you stated ethanol could replace 13.3% of gasoline. You may want to clarify it by saying the energy gained (or alleged energy gained if you wish) would replace 2% of gasoline use.

13.3% on a BTU equivalent basis (ignoring the energy inputs). If we subtract out the energy inputs, then we only netted out 2%.


My point was that simply from a crop area argument you can instantly dismiss 'the ethanol solution.'

Per acre sugar cane has the highest yield of ethanol(i recall reading this on a department of ag website but cannot locate the source this second).  It would require more than 1/3 of the worlds total crop area devoted to sugar cane to replace our current oil consumption.  It becomes easy to dismiss ethanol as a replacement fuel.  Unless, as recommended we simultaneously reduce consumption.  But alas, even if such cutbacks are made to allow us to produce enough ethanol such a situation:

  1. allows for no growth in consumption (and presumably population)
  2. doesn't allow the 3rd world to industrialize

These two problems present very large political barriers to an ethanol only society.

Think about it... a reasonable factor of reduction of consumption would be about 5-10x.  Meaning the ethanol production would take somewhere around 3-6% of the worlds crop area.  That's reasonable and undoubtedly sustainable with some form of crop rotation.

This would mean production of ethanol as a replacement is in the realm of possibility.  However, if the whole world were to achieve energy parity, a-la 3rd world industrialization then the currently industrialized world would have to consume far less, over 30-60x less.  That's never, going to happen (by choice).  Part of the reason we're so industrialized is because of our wanton use of energy.  While I'm sure some fat can be trimmed 29/30ths the fat cannot be cut by any stretch of the imagination.

I think maybe i've blathered on a bit much. :)

A big chunk of the 3rd world (China and India) will be getting all the oil they want (at least as long as it is still a traded commodity). A lot of persons in the USA will not be able to afford the high price.

That was the most illuminating piece on ethanol that I have ever read.  And you assume that the USDAs energy ratios are correct.  Elsewhere, you have cast serious doubt on whether they are being too optimistic in their calculations.  

Although I have every reason not to trust politicians, I will give Hillary the benefit of the doubt.  No doubt her mind has been clouded by all the b.s. coming out of the industry and other well meaning people who have never bothered to do the math or look up the math.  But even without your devastating analysis, it is obvious that ethanol will do almost nothing to help global warming.

And you assume that the USDAs energy ratios are correct.  Elsewhere, you have cast serious doubt on whether they are being too optimistic in their calculations.

They did in fact come back in their 2004 report and say that they had underestimated some of the energy inputs. I think they are in the ballpark, but the EROI is close enough to 1 that a little error in either direction can make a big difference. They also ignored the secondary inputs, like energy required to build the ethanol plant.

My major objection with the USDA numbers is how they manipulate them. For example, I have pointed out the following analogy before. Let's say I invest $100, and I get a return of $20 and another $40 worth of goods (co-product). What is my return on investment (ROI)? Most people would say that I got a total return of $60 on an investment of $100, for an ROI of 60%. If we utilize USDA accounting, we would use the $40 co-credit to offset our initial investment. We would then argue that we only invested $60 to get a return of $60, for an ROI of 100%. That is completely illegitimate, yet is exactly what they are doing.


Can you give a link to the paper/study that shows this math?
If you look at the 2002 report I linked to in the OP, you will see the beginnings of the accounting sleight of hand. If you look at the energy inputs and outputs, you will see that the ratio of energy out/energy in (including co-products) is 1.27. They got 1.34 by reducing the inputs by the amount of the coproducts. Yet the co-products don't in practice reduce the energy inputs, any more than a 20% return on a $100 investment reduces my actual investment to $80 (therefore exaggerating my return).

In the report published in 2004, they took this concept quite a bit farther. You can see that report here:

The 2001 Net Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol

Look at tables 3 and 4. In table 3, without co-product credits, their EROI is 1.06. By including co-product credits, it balloons to 1.67. Work through the math, and you will see what they are doing. I have confronted them on this, and even though they replied, they did not directly address this issue. Briefly, what they did here was assign a much higher percentage of the energy inputs in the process to the co-products, making it look like the ethanol piece uses less energy than it really does. In other words, they made the EROI of the co-products much worse in order to inflate the EROI of the ethanol. But Wang, one of the co-authors, has continued to use the 1.34 number even after this report was published, which should tell you something.

I think a believable number, including co-products, is around 1.3. But, the USDA report admittedly omits secondary inputs, and including them will cause the EROI to fall toward 1.0. How far it will fall, I don't know. Pimentel and Patzek both think it falls below 1. That would explain why ethanol can't live without subsidies. I acknowledge that it might be above 1, but still so marginal as to make the process a boondoggle.


I don't think Hillary's that ignorant about the issue.   Don't forget the Iowa caucus.
Sorry-having computer problems.  I'll repost that where it was meant to go.
I doubt Hillary's that ignorant about the subject.  Don't forget the Iowa caucus!
Just thought of something else.
Wouldn't a better energy strategy just be to radically decrease corn production?   That way all the energy devoted to corn could be diverted to replace energy required for transportation and other uses.  We could start by ending all subsidies. Further, 70% of corn production is devoted to meat production. Cut out the meat; cut out corn production and and save energy.

Ever wonder why meat is so cheap. In fact, eating meat is cheaper than being a vegetarian. I know; my grocery bill went way up after I became a vegan.  The vegetables I eat are not subsidized.  Corn and, therefore, meat, are subsidized.

Hillary Clinton is obviously placing a heavy bet on biofuels to reach her 50% goal.  How can we reach a goal of 50% given the apparent fact that biofuels may get us farther from the goal, not closer.

If Hillary and others really know the scoop, their pushing of ethanol is criminal as future generations will be left with a hot,dead, and decaying planet because we placed our bets on a clearly bogus and worthless technology.  Color me outrage.

Oh, and another thing.  Converting to vegetarianism and switching to organic foods would do far more than all the ethanol in the world.  

I also converted to vegetarianism for environmental reasons about six years back, after reading Michael Tobias's book World War III.  I continue to be impressed at how asymmetrically the green conscience adds to its Thou Shalt Nots: jet travel has finally made the list, and even bottled water, but barely a whisper about the enormous culprit - meat.  I guess it is too social an issue for most environmentalists.
This letter by Prof. Pimentel to the editors in the Financial Times today hits the issue well (not behind the pay wall)

This my first try at this so I hope it works

IMO RR and nearly everyone posting here today is missing the main point about corn and ethanol.  The corn crop will be produced whether it is turned into ethanol or not.  There would be no energy savings other than those used in the ethanol production process if corn is not used for ethanol.  Those ethanol production energy savings will be used to produce other things from the corn crop.  These include that wonderful product high fructose corn syrup that goes into soft drinks and contributes to the epidemic of diabtes.  Or the corn will be fed to hogs in factory farms (there are 7 within about 5 miles of my place).  These wonders of efficient production will turn 15 bu. of corn weighing 840 poounds into one 200 pound porker and 640 pounds of pig poop.  These are only 2 of the alternative uses for corn.  Ethanol to run my flex fuel Ford Ranger is much more valuable IMO.
IMO RR and nearly everyone posting here today is missing the main point about corn and ethanol.

Actually, you appear to have missed the key points of my essay: 1). E85 is not going to contribute more than a tiny drop in the bucket toward our energy needs; and 2). It is senseless to push for E85 pumps at 50% of all gas stations when ethanol producers can't make nearly enough ethanol to justify them.

The corn crop will be produced whether it is turned into ethanol or not.  

The corn crop has exanded as a result of the growth in ethanol production. So, demand has increased. If you reduce the demand, then no, the corn crop won't be produced (at least not as much). Perhaps we could grow something that is just a bit less harsh on the environment than excess corn for ethanol production.

Those ethanol production energy savings will be used to produce other things from the corn crop.  These include that wonderful product high fructose corn syrup that goes into soft drinks and contributes to the epidemic of diabtes.

So, do you think by turning the corn into ethanol, you are reducing demand for soft drinks? No? If not, then all that happens is that a substitute for corn syrup has to be found. Then the question is: What are the energy inputs into producing the substitute? So, while reducing diabetes is a noble goal, turning corn into ethanol is not going to help achieve it. Ditto for the pig feed.


Re: Essay point one. Ethanol will contribute only a tiny drop in our energy needs.  I thought we were discussing liquid fuel for transport not total energy needs.  We use about 10 million gallons per day for transport.  Ethanol may be able to contribute up to 10 percent of that once in full production.  Is that a tiny drop?

Re: Essay point two.  Pushing for E85 pumps in 50% of all stations is senseless as ethanol producers can't supply to needs.  That assumes that all cars on the road are flex fuel.  They are not.  The big obstical to flex fuel is access to E85.  Enough stations must sell E85 to make flex fuel work.  Most stations around here have 6 to 10 pumps.  Having one pump dispensing E85 sounds very sensible to me.

I'm a corn farmer so I know that corn production has not expanded due to ethanol.  The main reason corn production has expanded so much is biotechnology.  Genetically modified corn which is tolerant to glyphosate herbicide and another gene modification which causes the corn plant to poison the corn root worm have increased yields and reduced energy inputs to corn farming.

I think the obvious first goal is to determine the max ethanol concentration current infrastructure will support.  If pipes, stations, cars will do E10 (?) - get that out nationwide as a first step.

Only then, if you have done E10 everyhwere, and you have surplus ethanol, then expand E85 at a pace comensurate with that surplus (most reasonably on a regional basis).


If the EROEI is 1, why invest in a rollout? We have no net BTU gain. We deplete the soil. We inflate our food costs.

Business won't touch this with a 10 foot pole without heavy subsidies. That's a key consideration.

Forgot to add...

When the Wall Steet guys start speculating on corn, you won't be able to afford cereal. There are major ramifacations to co-mingling our food and energy markets.

I think that can be argued separately.  The math is much simpler to defeat "E85 everywhere."  It can be done in a paragraph:

  • how much corn do we grow?
  • how much ethanol comes from a bushel?
  • what percentage of gasoline consumption is that?

Robert does a finer grained analysis, but the rough numbers show it isn't going to add up.

Now, I don't know if I should mention this, but I have spotted an insidious reason that we "should" put E85 pumps everywhere.  That is that vehicles are only replaced at an approx 5% rate. (Do I hear a groan?)  Even if we cannot fuel the fleet everywhere, we might be able to fule new GM SUVs everywhere.  (Groaning now?)

Beyond that, sure, make the best case you can that ethanol itself is a bad bet.  But I think politically that is a harder case to make, just because the BTUs get thrown back and forth until the voter loses interest.

I think you nailed it.
Funny the ideas that a big cup of coffee will shake loose ...

It could be that this limited car replacement/retirement rate argues against "E85 everywhere" as well ... not from the GM perspective, but from the farmer's perspective.

Farmers (and ethanol producers) don't want E85 "sitting there" waiting for a new car sale.  They want to move millions and millions of gallons.  The way for them to do that is to spread the ethanol broadly, and use it in the massive "E10 ready" fleet out there.

Hear that farmers?  GM wants to steal your ethanol, for their own marketing effort. ;-)

Robert and I see completely eye to eye on this issue but I will raise my two points again:

  1. Building E85 nationwide does not make sense for corn ethanol in its current form, but it might down the road. I personally do not believe that cellulosic will be sustainable but my background is in finance and chinese not in corn polymers. IF Vinod Khosla and his ilk are correct and we can get 3-4:1 EROI from cellulosic then it MIGHT make sense to build the E85 infrastructure now, ahead of time. Again, Im an agnostic on cellulosic. Guilty until proven innocent in my opinion. Show me the cellulosic....

  2. There are many things wrong with corn ethanol, not least of which is an EROI near parity. But we are used to inefficient processes that turn lower quality fuels into higher quality fuels at effiency losses. There is NO WAY that the thousands of ethanol plant plans will be able to run on natural gas - we dont have enough. So they will have to run on coal (or I guess, conceivably wind or some other). If the nation has an abundance of coal and an abundance of corn, and lacks transportation fuels, an EROI less than parity should not be a death knell to the process. Its not like we are violating some fundamental law of the universe to produce something with a negative net energy. It just means its not sustainable and we'd be better off conserving. An EROI less than one could under certain circumstances (and TOD readers know what Im talking about) be a transitional step.
I've said before that we should not count technology chickens before they are hatched.

Building out E85 infrastructure now, on the assumption of cellulosic ethanol breakthroughs, is exactly like building out Hyrdogen infrastructure noew, on the assumption of fuel cell (etc.) breakthroughs.

I'm not sure who was the firstešuÔsay "ethanol is the new hydrogen" but he nailed it.

I thought we were discussing liquid fuel for transport not total energy needs.  We use about 10 million gallons per day for transport.  Ethanol may be able to contribute up to 10 percent of that once in full production.  Is that a tiny drop?

Actually, we use about 380 million gallons a day for transport. Motor gas sales in the U.S. are about 140 billion gallons a year (just for gasoline). As the initial essay showed, ethanol could only contribute 2.5% if we used all of our corn exports for making ethanol. So, 10% is not likely.

Pushing for E85 pumps in 50% of all stations is senseless as ethanol producers can't supply to needs.  That assumes that all cars on the road are flex fuel.  They are not.  The big obstical to flex fuel is access to E85.  Enough stations must sell E85 to make flex fuel work.  Most stations around here have 6 to 10 pumps.  Having one pump dispensing E85 sounds very sensible to me.

That doesn't make much sense to me. The big obstacle to flex fuel may be access to E85, but as I have shown in the essay there is no hope of making enough E85 to justify pumps at more than a fraction of the stations. They want oil companies to spend money putting in pumps that will benefit ethanol producers, but oh, by the way, the ethanol producers can't even supply enough product to justify the expense.

I'm a corn farmer so I know that corn production has not expanded due to ethanol.

You are confusing the questions "How did we expand corn production?" and "Why did we expand corn production?" Biotechnology and other innovations are the "how". Expanded ethanol production is the "why".


The corn crop has expanded as a result of the growth in ethanol production.

Actually, it appears that the USDA estamates corn acres to be down this year from 81.8 million to 78.0.  Presumably because of the increased costs of fuel and fertilizer.  OTOH, soybean acreage is up from 72.1 from 76.9 million.  Itś cheaper to produce.

Much cheaper. You don't have to irrigate soybeans nearly so much.
By comparison, here's a quick and dirty calculation for the area of solar panels required to produce the energy in 84MBD of oil, from an old post:

1 barrel of crude oil contains ~5,800,000 BTUs of energy
Solar radiation at the surface of the planet = ~342 watts / square meter (averaged around the clock)
342 watts for 1 hour = 1,167 BTUs (1 kilowatt-hour = 3,413 BTUs times 0.342)
5,800,000 BTUs / 1,167 BTUs = sunlight falling on ~4,970 square meters for 1 hour
Current worldwide oil consumption = ~84,000,000 barrels/day
84,000,000 barrels times 5,800,000 BTUs = 487,200,000,000,000 BTUs / day
Let X = sq. m required:
487,200,000,000,000 BTU/day = 1167 (BTU/sq.m) hour * 24 hrs/day * X sq.m
X = 17,395,029,991 sq m required
 = 6,716 sq. mi
U.S. area = 9,631,418 sq. km. x 1,000,000 sq. m/sq. km
U.S. area = 9,631,418,000,000 sq m
% area required = 17,395,029,991 / 9,631,418,000,000
 = 0.0018 or 0.18%
current panel efficiency is about 12%
0.0018/.12 = 1.5% of U.S. area or
6,716/.12 = 55,967 sq. mi
or a little more than the state of New York.
 This of course assumes no increase in panel efficiency, or decrease in consumption.

We burn about 70% of the oil we use in vehicles that are about 20% efficient.
If we were to use a substantial portion of the solar generated electricity instead in electric vehicles (let's say 60%), the efficiency (including transmission of power) is about 75%.  
So the actual energy we would need would decrease:
60% of 70% is 42% of total energy impacted by efficiency gain:
0.58 + 0.42*0.20 / 0.75
=69.2% of original energy, assuming the world at large uses 70% of its oil consumption for transportation (probably a bad assumption, so this is likely optimistic.
But I'm feeling optimistic so the 55,967 sq mi is reduced to 55,967 * 0.692 = 38,729 sq mi.  

About the size of Indiana.  Look on a globe, and imagine that much area spread out throughout the globe in a highly distributed manner.

Seems more feasible to me than ethanol.  I really like corn on the cob, and would rather eat it than burn it.

I'm rushing this a bit as I have to go, so hopefully there aren't any major errors.

Of course your solar panel analysis includes all energy costs associated with the mining and refining of materials, the transportation of materials, the maintenance of the panels, the construction of the grid to get the electricity to the market and every other energy cost that comes with high tech solutions.

You use oil consumption as the measure of success. Does that presume a continuation of the automobile paradigm? If so, then what about the costs of maintaining the highways and streets of the nation? What about replacing the entire fossil fueled powered fleet?

I agree that solar panels would be swell, but can't we agree that we need to eliminate the auto? Just cut out the poisonous legacy technology?

Every technology, every activity, has its downside - entropy always increases. Tough noogies, unless everyone wants to simply lay down and die. Or live like a Cuban, which seems almost as bad.

The Chinese, who didn't have (many) autos, can't agree to get rid of them, although they did back off from that, but only a tad. And India, where they haven't had autos either, is starting to build four lane roads.

So, thinking about folks who have had autos, we probably need to agree that hell will freeze over before they will agree to get rid of them.

In other words, "A third of humanity doesn't want to ride bikes anymore; that has profound geopolitical implications. --Anne Korin", as seen now and then in the rotating text in that box at the upper right corner of the TOD page.

Objection, Argumentative for argumentative's sake..

Come on, you just have to KNOW that anyone here, posting to advocate for solar and ev's is not proposing to create an electrified 'Mirror-image' of the car paradigm we live in now. But cars are extremely functional for many applications, and aren't going to just disappear.  Energy costs will have the final say in how much we will drive, how far we'll live from work, how many grocery bags we can tow on our bike trailers, or on the bus, how many colleagues we can carpool with, etc..

The solar industry doesn't have to build a whole, new grid, does it?

Mining- Polysilicon is coming up short right now, but that's a manufacturing bottleneck. So far, the energy output of a PV panel pays for it's Energy and Material Inputs on the order of 5-10 years, and after its 25-40 year lifespan, its materials can be reclaimed and recycled.  

Maintenance- Virtually none for panels, not a whole lot for inverters and other electronics, and for the grid, that applies to any electrical supply.

The Roads, the Fleet - Boy, you set a high bar.  I don't think installing a lot of PV solar has to be justified by satisfying that demand.  Keeping up the roads will be where much of our transport fuel will get used, until and unless we can move back onto steel rails and something else to pave with.  We still have a lot of bridges to fix, too.

PV's 'would be Swell'..  No, they ARE swell, and they work very reliably, and we should put them on every new roof, as Germany has been doing.  That is a journey of a thousand miles that we owe it to ourselves to be making steady steps towards.  It's the Tortoise and Hare problem, which is a death-knell in this country.  Solar Pays back steadily, but slowly, and America keeps telling itself that it's better to just win Lotto, and that little, expensive, sober and smart moves are only for Goody-Goodys.  We want it big and bold, nothing humble, quiet and meek need apply..

Even Humbler than PV is Solar Heat, which would win us back a solid return on NG, Elec. and Liquids (90% of us in Maine heat with oil) .. It works, it's not that complicated, it pays for itself faster than PV, and it requires an investment in the future, which we seem congenitally unwilling to make, even if the running costs are sent in free (almost) every day.

You make Solar sound unrealistic and then ask us to agree that 'all we need to do is get rid of all the cars'..  We know steps that need to be taken for both.  It's not an 'Either/Or', it's BOTH, and much more besides..

Bob Fiske

I heartily agree. Every time I do calculations on solar power the results are very positive. Another calculation suggests that the amount of recoverable solar energy falling on the land used for nuclear power (security areas, cooling towers, mines, waste pools, etc.) about equals the nuclear power generated.

Compared to ethanol PV panels actually produce more power than they consume in manufacture. According to this report (NREL Report No. NREL/FS-520-24619) the payback time is one to three years depending on the type of panel and the assumptions made. The life of the system may be thirty years. Even half that life produces a very favorable EROI.

By the way, Sunpower in San Jose is making panels that are about 20% efficient.

Concentrator systems may reach higher efficiencies but are not commonly available.

There are two Sunpowers.  One makes PV, the other makes stirling engines.  How did that happen?

Stirling engines are very efficient, but do need concentration.  but they are just iron,copper and magnets like lots of things we know how to make, not super well organized silicon.  Could be real cheap, like for example, $200/kW instead of $2000/kw for PV.

Don't be put off by the fact that these stirling engines are at present very expensive.  that's what just naturally happens when you make them for NASA.  If you design for Wallmart, you get cheap or die.

And if we (USA) don't start making them, not to worry, the Chinese, or the Koreans, or the Younameits will.

" Another calculation suggests that the amount of recoverable solar energy falling on the land used for nuclear power (security areas, cooling towers, mines, waste pools, etc.) about equals the nuclear power generated."

782 billion kwh were produced by nuclear power in 2005.


Much of this is in the North East an area not perfect for solar but I still doubt the above quote.  Assuming square footage in AZ how many square miles are neccesary?

About 100 square miles, using the 342 watts/m^2 number I started with:

0.342kW/m^2 * 24 hr/day = 8.21 kWh/(m^2 day)
8.21 kWh/(m^2 day) * 365 days/yr = 2996 kWh/(m^2 yr)

782e9 kWh/yr (nuclear power) = 2996 kWh/(m^2 yr) * X m^2

X = 261e6 m^2 = 261 km^2 = ~100 square miles.

Arizona, I would guess, would give you somewhat better than 342 watts/m^2 to start with.

Alright...is the 24 hour day acounted as light?

I think we sooner have 100 square miles of wasted rooftops before we have 100 square miles of nuclear facility.

What about "Shading" parking lots with elevated solar panels?  There is lots of sunlight hitting concrete and shingle that is wasted.


Alright...is the 24 hour day acounted as light?

If I understand your question, the 342 watts/m^2 takes into account clouds and night, and is an overall, macro-average.  Full sunlight gives around 1000 watts/m^2.

I agree, rooftops are where a vast majority of panels can go, and are going.

reactor, cooling towers, security border and facilities    2 sq miles
mine and tailings    3 sq miles
processing and enrichment    1 sq mile
waste storage    1 sq mile

total area    7 sq miles
conversion to sq km    2.59 sq km/sq miles
total sq km    18.13
total sq meters              18,130,000
1 KW/sq m solar constant yields
solar power peak is       18,130,000 KW
solar power peak (MW)    18,130 MW
take 1/3 due to night    6,043 MW avg
18% efficient PV cells            1,087  MW avg recoverable

1,000 MW is the power from a large nuclear plant. Even if you cut the area by half or a quarter the recoverable solar power is about 500MW or 250MW which is comparable to the power generated by nuclear plant occupying that land. Note that nuclear plants also have downtime though I believe they are improving.

My point is that the total land usage for solar power and nuclear power is not that different. I freely admit that I guessed at the areas used for a nuclear facility. I got to thinking about this because the focus on nuclear power is usually on just the containment building while in reality there is a lot of surrounding land needed to support that facility including security buffers to keep out the curious.

Solar panels need bright light, so we take 38,729 sq mi and divide by 0.55 for Northern Hemisphere average cloud cover, giving 70400. Then we have to look at that efficiency figure. Sure, there are 10-12% efficient panels available commercially - I was looking at one earlier today. But they are expensive, being made out of ultrapure crystalline silicon. Nobody's going to be making 70400 square miles of that at an affordable price in any relevant time frame. They might conceivably, maybe, make it in 3-5% efficient thin film on glass. So raise that to 212000 square miles of coated glass. That's 549000 square kilometers. If you need one half micron worth of (say) indium in the coating, you need 274000 cubic meters, or
1.92 million tonnes. Is that much indium, or whatever rare element(s) are to be used in the coatings, really available?

Not going to happen quickly or easily - it's going to take a whole lot of work on manufacturability.

Solar panels need bright light, so we take 38,729 sq mi and divide by 0.55 for Northern Hemisphere average cloud cover, giving 70400

This is already accounted for in the 342W/sq.m., on a worldwide basis.

I would freely acknowledge many, many hurdles (technical and otherwise) for this solution - I was just offering it as a comparison to the ethanol "solution" that seems to be the bandwagon all of our fearless leaders are jumping on.

Good luck on this one, solarfan,.  I have been singing that same song for decades now, and nobody came to hear.  But now, with oil at 70/b, the audience seems to be growing exponentially.    I just talked to a money guy yesterday who tells me  "if you can make it work in a demo, money is no problem".  Wow! that would be nice.  We can make it (simple stirlings) work.  So let's see.  forget ethanol.  Except at dinner.
nice analysis,
some thoughts. What if the energy return was actually negative ? This would make the whole ethanol scheme an even more scary waste of time. Also ignoring the distillation process, whereby you could substitute coal. Fertilizers are made with HUGE amounts of natural gas.

Next, someone else briefly skimmed over this. Food prices. The elastacity of demand for food, is pretty inelastic due to food being a necesssity. While gasoline is not quite so essential it probably has a similar elastacity of demand, meaning .. if they try and force too much ethanol into the market, its going to do something scary to WORLD food prices. Drive or starve ? You would hope economics would allocate the resources efficiently but i think this will probably mean the poor are going to go hungry. I think we should get either have coal powered steam cars, or compress natural gas. Skip the whole ethanol bollox in the middle.

Re solar energy capture on a field of corn versus a field of photovoltaic panels.  A crucial difference (barring hailstorms or fire) is that the crop accumulates the energy to be harvested in batch mode.  Photovoltaics not only have exorbitant capital cost but the output has to be used in realtime or backed up with other costly alternatives.

When somebody can combine closed loop (organic) growing of a suitable crop with cellulosic technology then we will have a better idea of a sustainable yield.


Sorry, 'exorbitant' is paying to refill a tank over and over and over, and thinking 'Boy, cheap fuel is a blessing!'.  This mentality of calling a big investment 'unwieldy' or 'prohibitive', even when the experience shows that this investment will actually pay for itself, possibly a few times over, it is just playing into a short-sighted business model that has painted us into this corner.

Yes, it's a big investment.  I'm waiting to be able to jump at getting a full Solar Hot water system installed, and am choking on the quotes, waiting to figure out an angle to make it happen.

Luckily, we don't have to make Cornfields compete with Solar Panels. We can have both.   As Oilrig mentioned above, we have all sorts of wasted space like parking lots and rooftops that will actually benefit further from being shaded- where we can install whatever PV and solar-heating we can produce.  Think of all the homes in the Southwest that would like to sit in the shade, of all the shingles that are steadily crumbling as the sun bakes them..  But we have to be smart enough to trust the numbers that tell us that this investment will actually be worth the pain and inconvenience that the initial decision produces.

Bob Fiske


Manipulation and Marketing.  Smoke and Mirrors.

Roll-up,  Roll-up.

Whistle, call and yap - flock up flock left flock through the gate.

Keep the wolf at bay.  Even though the elephant is in the room.

Quick! a larger diversion.  Statistics - with letters.

Somewhat late to the party here. This is a good post, and I have one question. How many BTUs of fossil fuels go into making how many BTUs of refined gasoline you can pour in your tank?
I read the post, but I don't think it gets at the question. Yes, the initial EROEI of taking oil out of the ground is far larger than the losses of subsequent refining steps. What wasn't clear to me was once we've pumped oil out of the ground and refined it, are we better off burning it directly or using it to produce ethanol? If you get more BTUs of ethanol out than you put of fossil fuel products in, it would seem to be the latter.

The USDA study appears to have made the opposite error. It looked at the losses inherent in refining gasoline, neglecting to note that the fossil fuel inputs into ethanol production consist of a lot of refined products such as diesel and gasoline, which means that the same losses apply to ethanol production as well.

By far the more damning part of the analysis here is the inability to produce more than a fraction of current fuel usage from available arable land.

What wasn't clear to me was once we've pumped oil out of the ground and refined it, are we better off burning it directly or using it to produce ethanol?

It depends on whether the EROI is truly greater than 1. That is still an open question. At best, it is not much better than 1, meaning that using it to produce ethanol is a questionable practice.


Hello TODers,

Just "spinning our wheels"...

http://www.cnn.com/2006/AUTOS/05/22/cr_fuel_concerns/index.html?section=cnn_topstories&eref=yaho o

Regular readers know I advocate TODers to keep their present vehicle and its already sunk costs for bulk loads/passengers, but use scooters as a way to defray gas expenses, but for those in adverse climate conditions a good year-round solution is a street legal 4-wheel quad:


This next image is a street-legal homemade quad for those that wish to save gas, yet still go 150mph [a bit overboard, if you ask me, but sure looks like fun]:


I have seen a few other quads running around Phx streets as it is not that difficult to legalize them for the road.

Bob Shaw in Phx,AZ  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

I wonder how stable these things are? Three or four wheels are nice when you have a low COG, but if you don't, your inside wheels will lift in a turn.

The more I look at alternatives to autos, the more I come back to HPVs - human-powered vehicles.

You guys are way over simplifying ethanol production.

You are quite right in saying that using corn kernels to make ethanol is not practical.  Corn is a C3 chemistry plant that requires nitrogen fertilizer.  The main reason we can grow huge amounts of corn are because of the large amount of natural gas and crude used in fertilizer production.  Corn also requires lots of plowing burning tractor fuel.

The points you miss completely are:

  1.  C4 Chemistry Plants.  Some plants get their nitrogen from the air and do not require much fertilizer.   Why do you think weeds grow so well in poorly maintained soil?  Switch Grass, Soy Beans and others are C4 chemistry plants.  Soy Bean production is well understood but does require lots of tractor time.  Switch Grass is less understood and has some difficult harvesting issues.  The good thing is Switch Grass is like your lawn, one it is growing you do not have to replant and spend so much tractor time.

  2.  Cellulosic Ethanol is the holy grail.  Basically waste like corn "stalks", wood waste, paper waste, could be turned into fuel.  Thanks to a micro-organism that ate Army tents during WWII and a fantastic rate, some Canadians are making large scale cellulosic processes NOW.

  3.  Do not forget using other landfill and sewage type wastes.  Some of it by current technology, some by cellulosic.

Do condemn your children and grandchildren to fight over other people's oil.  If we use a little engineering and focus on more than one item, we can get ourselves out of this current crude problem and create jobs for lots of regular folks like farmers.
That suppose to be:

Do "not" condemn

C4 has something to do with carbon, not nitrogen, therefore the acronym is C4 and not N4. There are three ways how plants use ("fix") CO2: C3, C4, and CAM. C4 plants are best when water supplies are moderately limited, CAM plants are best when water supply is severely limited. Corn (maize), switchgrass, and sugar cane are all C4 plants. Beans and peas, e.g. soybean or peanut are not (as far as I know, couldn't find a reference for this). Beans and peas are able to make their own nitrogen fertilizer. With the help of a symbiont (Rhizobium), they pull nitrogen (N2) out of the air and put it into protein etc.

Conclusion: the difference between switchgrass, sugar cane and corn in biomass production efficiency has nothing to do with C4 metabolism because they are all C4 plants. It's just that all parts of the switchgrass plant can be used in cellulosic ethanol production (not only the seeds). And sugar cane is more efficient because of the hotter climate it's growing in, which allows it to grow faster. Also should need less fertilizer because the sugar that is harvested from it is almost pure and contains no nitrogen. Therefore, less nitrogen is lost from the sugar cane fields.

Hi Maaarrrk

We need more than an advert for other biomass sources...What are the numbers in terms of EROEI, btu per acre...etc., etc.  And, finally, how much of a dent in our current (and growing) fuel consumption can be made if we adopt these alternatives.

lots of biomass had to die and accumulate over a very long time to store the energy contained in fossil fuels...agriculture cannot (a) feed the people and (b) feed our growing fuel appetite at the same time....


Ted Lowe

Burning fossil fuel is bringing back carbon in the form of CO2 that had been locked in the earth for millions of years.

Bio-fuel extracts Carbon from CO2 that is in the air and recycles it as fuel.  Any plant takes in CO2, uses the carbon for fiber and releases the oxygen. Basic biochemistry.

By using any recently alive plant matter for bio-fuel you are actually using carbon that is already in circulation in the atmosphere.

Think of how much carbon would be removed from the atmosphere if we used recently living plants for fuel and stopped extracted fossil carbon that is locked in the earth.

The points you miss completely are: C4 Chemistry Plants.

How about butanol?


Do not forget using other landfill and sewage type wastes. Some of it by current technology, some by cellulosic.

Read this:

Biomass technology answers biofuels need, Texas A&M chemical engineer says


[...] some Canadians are making large scale cellulosic processes NOW.

Is anybody in production?  I know only of the Iogen pilot plant.

FWIW, I think that cellulosic ethanol is currently losing to corn ethanol "only" on a cost basis.  The enzymes used are expensive in a dollar sense, but I don't think in an energy sense.  Now, if we were further down the depletion curve, and just needed ethanol everywhere, at any price, it might be interesting to see how for Iogen's current tech would scale.

That would be interesting wouldn't it?  Cellulosic ethanol as an expensive follow-on to the gasoline age ...

I thought it would be interesting to run the numbers of how much ethanol we would need to make enough E85 for Clinton's proposal for half of the gas stations to have it.  From the data given by Rapier, and Clinton's desire for half of the gas stations to have E85 available, we can assume about half of the total gasoline consumption will be affected, which is about 70 billion gallons of gasoline.  If 85% of this gasoline is to be ethanol, then we would need 59.5 billion gallons of ethanol.  With 2.7 gallons of ethanol per bushel, we would need 22.0 billion bushels of corn to make enough ethanol to run E85 at half of the stations across America.  This is obviously over twice our yearly corn production.  These values are only correct, however, if the total E85 consumption is the same as the total current gasoline consumption.  It is apparent that we cannot use E85 by itself, obtained solely from corn.  Correct me if there are any mistakes in my logic.
If 85% of this gasoline is to be ethanol, then we would need 59.5 billion gallons of ethanol.

But, since ethanol has only 67% of the BTUs of gasoline, you would actually require more than 70 billion gallons to make up the half you replaced. If, as is typical, you lose 30% gas mileage with E85, you would need 70 billion/0.7, or 100 billion gallons of E85 to replace 70 billion gallons of gasoline. Higher compression engines may be able to close some of the efficiency gap, but to date none has demonstrated that it can completely close the gap.


I have now removed the disclaimer, since no numerical errors have been pointed out. I will place it down here just in case someone spot a errors. If so, I will still correct them.

I plan on posting this on my blog as soon as I get a chance, along with the detailed calculations in case someone doesn't understand where a number came from.

Here was the disclaimer from the original essay:

* Disclaimer

I wrote this essay in a single sitting in about an hour. The conclusion was quite stunning to me, but I want to make sure I haven't overlooked anything. I have checked the math a couple of times, but can't spot any errors. If you can find any errors, or don't understand how I calculated something, let me know. I will correct any errors, logical mistakes,  or typos that are pointed out. There are a lot of smart people on this board, and I would appreciate the peer review.


Your numbers seem OK, however I think some of the wording is a little confusing. For example, this part:

"Given that the fossil fuels (primarily natural gas) that went into making the ethanol can usually serve as transportation fuels, the amount of transportation fuel that is displaced is only the 8% that was "created". That means that in reality, using our entire corn crop would only displace 1% of our annual gasoline consumption."

I commented on Econbrowser that you were not, as some readers thought, comparing an ethanol intensive situation with the status quo. Rather, you were comparing turning the entire corn crop to ethanol, which requires lots of natural gas, with a hypothetical scenario where that natural gas was instead used to power vehicles directly. In that case, the ethanol scenario only produces 1% more than the scenario where natural gas is used directly.

You are comparing two hypothetical scenarios here and getting only a 1% gain for ethanol, not looking at how ethanol could do vs the status quo. (And of course, nobody is proposing to turn the entire corn crop in to ethanol, so these scenarios are purely theoretical.)

Am I reading you correctly? Is that where the 1% figure comes from, by comparing these two hypotheticals? I think many readers who focus only on these conclusions (which are getting quoted elsewhere, such as on Econbrowser.com) are mistakenly reading them as indicating that ethanol can only replace 1% of our current gasoline supply.

You might keep this issue in mind if you have occasion to reprint or extend this article. There are so many ways to measure ethanol's impact, so many scenarios to consider, and such disagreement over what constitutes a fair, apples to apples comparison, that it all becomes quite confusing to someone who is not intimately familiar with the issues.

I commented on Econbrowser that you were not, as some readers thought, comparing an ethanol intensive situation with the status quo.

I am doing 2 different calculations. The first just considers how much contribution ethanol could make to our liquid fuel needs. That number, for 100% of the corn crop, is 13.4% on a BTU equivalent basis, and 18.7% on volumetric basis.

When you consider the net, that is you consider that it took energy to make ethanol that could have gone into directly fueling vehicles, that's when you get the net of 1%. This net displacement calculation seems to be the one that some people have a bit of trouble with.


I'm willing to accept that ethanol created with current technology from fossil fuels is largely not beneficial, but does that mean ethanol itself, and research into it is not beneficial?  Let me just outline one possible scenario.  What if ethanol were created using battery operated tractors, powered by wind or solar energy.  Could the product then be useful, simply as a liquid energy storage medium.  I realize that this might be silly, since we could just go to a grid connected society with EVs, which is a much more promising idea, in my opinion, especially with advances in battery technology lately.  But just playing the devil's advocate, couldn't ethanol be potentially useful in the scenario outlined above?
I love research, I just hate building fueling stations ahead of time, on the assuption that one research project or another (ethanol E85 or hydrogen) will pay off.

Fund research, not production.

A helpful and timely analysis! A small point that doesn't change your overall conclusion:

"Given that the fossil fuels (primarily natural gas) that went into making the ethanol can usually serve as transportation fuels, the amount of transportation fuel that is displaced is only the 8% that was "created". That means that in reality, using our entire corn crop would only displace 1% of our annual gasoline consumption."

In addition to estimating the overall energy balance, it could be helpful to look at the ethanol issue in the context of liquid fuels used and gained. Most of the fossil fuel input to ethanol production is in the form of natural gas and coal. The USDA study addresses this, estimating that the liquid fuels input (gasoline, diesel, fuel oils) is just 21,700 BTU per bushel. So is it not correct that the net gain of transportation fuel (ignoring co-products) is 62,261 BTU/gal (83,961-21,700), about 2.9 times the energy input of liquid fuels?  

Not correct because I mixed units.  The liquid fuels input is 21,700 BTU per bushel, which produces 2.7 gallons of ethanol, so that's 8,037 BTU per gallon.  The net gain of transportation fuel would be 75,924 BTU/gal, about 9.4 times the energy input of liquid fuels.  
So is it not correct that the net gain of transportation fuel...

That would be true, except for the fact that natural gas works fine as a transportation fuel in CNG vehicles. We have a hundred thousand or so already in the U.S., but Brazil has 10 times that many.

The argument is more valid if you are using coal to fuel the boilers that drive the distillation, but then again there are more efficient uses for coal (not to mention the fact that coal is not environmentally friendly).


Yes, CNG vehicles are a tiny portion of the US fleet, barely significant. With natural gas being considerably cheaper than gasoline today, the two major barriers to more widespread acceptance in road transportation are poor retail availability and the conversion cost, which is about $5K for a passenger car or truck.

The point I wanted to make is that, purely on a liquid fuels basis, ethanol production and use does make good sense.  I agree that it's questionable on almost any other basis, including overall greenhouse gas emissions.  

You said: "Putting all of that ethanol into the gasoline supply would mean ethanol could comprise 19% of the gasoline supply on a volumetric basis (while consuming all of our corn production)."

Isn't 27.9 / 140 = 19.93% or 20%?

I think it would be interesting to see what percentage of the crude oil imports could be replaced by ethanol.  That is what most people that I talk to think about: "stopping the imports". So, could ethanol "stop the imports"?


Isn't 27.9 / 140 = 19.93% or 20%?

It is, but you now need more than 140 billion gallons, since ethanol is less energy dense. That's why it's 19%.


James Lovelock January 2006, The Inependent.

`'....So what should we do? First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act; and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. Civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered descent. On these British Isles, we are used to thinking of all humanity and not just ourselves; environmental change is global, but we have to deal with the consequences here in the UK.
Unfortunately our nation is now so urbanised as to be like a large city and we have only a small acreage of agriculture and forestry. We are dependent on the trading world for sustenance; climate change will deny us regular supplies of food and fuel from overseas.
We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate....''


There are a couple of more VERY IMPORTANT numbers that have to be taken into account when determining how much ethanol we can produce with our current corn crop, and how much fossil fuel we can replace with that ethanol.
The first number is 60% which is the amount of US corn production which is fed to livestock. If you redirect that corn to brewing ethanol and fed the distillers grain to the cattle, you would be able to produce ethanol as simply an in-between step in cattle feeding. No upset in the corn market or great famines occuring there. The distillers grains (leftover mash after fermentation) actually has a livestock food value between 1.3 and 1.7 times the food value of the raw corn (depending on type of livestock fed, dairy vs. meat).
 another number is 6%. Which is the eroei gain you can expect to see by not drying the distillers grain and shipping it off to distant dairy farms. A company called e3 biosystems saves approximately 5000btu per gallon of ethanol produced by feeding their wet distillers grain to livestock fed locally. All ethanol studies I have seen that take distillers grain into account as a useful byproduct, assumes that it is first dried then shipped.
  Yet another number which needs to be taken into account is 19,000. That is the number of BTUs required to actually distill a gallon of ethanol. If you look at the e3biofuels website you will see that they are planning on running exclusively from methane generated by their onsite cow manure digesters. (the manure is supplied for free by the cows that are eating all of that distillers grain.)
  I am in total agreement that ethanol is not a panacea, and that there is no way we could possibly supply all of the U.S. liquid fuel need with it, but if we take these numbers into account, we can make a pretty big dent in our fossil fuel usage.
Extremely intresting reasoning. If "The distillers grains (leftover mash after fermentation) actually has a livestock food value between 1.3 and 1.7 times the food value of the raw corn." is correct you have justified the current massive investments in ethanol plants and more.

Btw, distillers grains is perfect feed for pigs, right?
And people have the same basic nutrition needs as as pigs, right?
This means that with sufficient flavoring or hunger the ethanol industry could feed an enourmous number of people, right?

One intresting technical detail to check is if there are any good high temperature heat pump processes to make distillation heat with electricity and some ambient low grade heat source. It is a shame to waste good wehicle fuel methane for heat production if you can use nuclear, wind or (yuch) low grade fossil fuel electricity.

Actually, the increase in food value is specific to cattle. The microbes in the cows first stomach have an easier time converting the distillers grain to a form immediately useable to the cow, as opposed to converting about 75% of the raw corn to urea, which the cow can digest at a much slower and less efficient rate
Livestock cannot eat but so much DDG (dry distillers grain). Anything beyond that is waste to be disposed of, or negligible nutricional value to livestock (in much the same way that humans cannot thrive on a diet comprised mostly of nachos).
For example, with lactating dairy cattle, diets of 35% corn silage, 35% alfalfa haylage and 25% distillers grains (dry matter basis) are not uncommon. Note the fairly small percentage of DDGs used.

DDG also makes livestock fart something terrible (lots of methane, a greenhouse gas orders of magnitude worse for climate change than CO2).  
Compared to corn grain, phosphorous is also concentrated three-fold in distillers grains and must be taken into consideration when formulating dairy diets to minimize
phosphorous excretion into the environment.
Finally, heat (used in the dry distillation process) damages the proteins found in DDG, rendering them less than ideal for livestock.

I dont get why phosphorous should be a problem. Isent it a valuble fertilizer that needs to be returend to the fields? It should only be a question about shipping the manure to where it is needed.
The distillers grain used in the e3 setup is not dried, it is piped to a high density cattle feedlot as a slurry.  

The papers I have read on the subject, discussed how the cows in the experiments were fed 40 to 60% wet distillers grain (even though it was fed wet, it was measured as dry weight), and the rest grass hay. The WDG had high enough nutrient content that no alfalfa was needed.

Slurry can be applied to fields, but it must be knifed or squirted in.  The equipment involves a tank of some sort with a special attachment.  

One reason why not as much cattle slurry is applied this way is because it is expensive to truck the tankage around to the farms.  However, now that nitrogen fertilizer is so expensive, trucking tankage further may be cost-effective.  Of course, the tankage should only be applied up to the point that phosphorus is optimized, freqeuntly meaning that the tankage must be spread more thinly than would be necesssary to obtain optimal nitrogen.

Hog slurry presents more problems due to the human unfriendly microbes contained therein.  I have read that considerable research is being devoted to either sanitize the hog slurry or to extract valuable NPK, etc., from it.

Yet another number which needs to be taken into account is 19,000. That is the number of BTUs required to actually distill a gallon of ethanol.

This was discussed here a few days ago. Actual surveys from ethanol plant put this number at more like 3 times what you quoted. This is in the USDA report. The 19,000 number appears to originate from a still some guy put together and wrote about in 1981. If it was viable on a commercial scale, ethanol producers would be using it.

I am in total agreement that ethanol is not a panacea, and that there is no way we could possibly supply all of the U.S. liquid fuel need with it, but if we take these numbers into account, we can make a pretty big dent in our fossil fuel usage.

What do you consider "a pretty big dent"? As I showed, even if we turned 100% of the corn crop into ethanol, it would only amount to 19% of our total gasoline usage. From a fuel displacement viewpoint, it is much less.


The latent heat of vaporization of ethanol is 1363 BTUs per gallon. Using 19000 BTUs to distill one gallon means that your thermal efficiency is only about 14%. This doesn't sound very far fetched to me.

But even if the actual number is 3 times that, (I have seen less efficient industrial processes)it only makes the fact that E3 is planning on getting all of these BTUs from the on-site production of methane that much better as far as EROEI from fossil fuels is concerned.

  If we converted all of the corn currently used to feed cattle into ethanol (60%), we could displace about 11% of our liquid fuel use.
  If someone put a dent in your car which measured out to be 11% of your car's total length, i'm pretty sure you (and your insurance company) would consider that a pretty big dent.

The latent heat of vaporization of ethanol is 1363 BTUs per gallon. Using 19000 BTUs to distill one gallon means that your thermal efficiency is only about 14%. This doesn't sound very far fetched to me.

But what you are boiling is mostly water.

If we converted all of the corn currently used to feed cattle into ethanol (60%), we could displace about 11% of our liquid fuel use.

But why focus on liquid fuels? Why not CNG autos? That eliminates the whole ethanol plant and infrastructure required to support it, as well as the wasteful distillation.


You are heating the water and boiling the ethanol.
No. In a distillation column, you have to boil both or you don't get any separation. That's how a fractional distillation works.


My recollection from physics lab experiments is that as you heat the mixture, when it reaches the lower boiling point, the temperature stops going up, until the more volatile fraction is entirely boiled off. At that point the temperature begins to rise again, until it hits the next boiling point of the mixture, and so on (for a mixture with potentially several different boiling points). So in general you do not need to or want to boil the higher temperature liquids, if your goal is to purify the liquid with the lower boiling point.

I understand that ethanol does have a special property in that a mixture of 95% ethanol + 5% water boils at a lower temperature than pure ethanol. So you do end up boiling away some water along with your ethanol, you can't avoid it. And then this may require extra work to purify the ethanol in the cooling tower. But you shouldn't have to boil most of the water.

My recollection from physics lab experiments is that as you heat the mixture, when it reaches the lower boiling point, the temperature stops going up, until the more volatile fraction is entirely boiled off.

That's not how it works. The boiling point of the mixture continues to go up as the ligher fraction is boiled off.

So in general you do not need to or want to boil the higher temperature liquids, if your goal is to purify the liquid with the lower boiling point.

In a fractional distillation, which is how industrial distillations are carried out, you have a series of plates in which the concentration of lights increases as you go up the column and down as you go down. On every tray, the boiling point of the mixture has to be reached.


An interesting three paragraphs on this page (link below) under "simple distillation."  My recollection was like Halfin's, and even though I've got that rusty old chem degree (B.S. '81), I missed something.  Relatively pure solutions behave as we remember, but impurities (such as sugars) can create a moving boiling temperature.

In practice it's gonna depend on how much other gunk is in ethanol 'beer.'  They talk about the mixture 'thickening' .. I don't suppose the corn beer would be that thick ...


If we converted all of the corn currently used to feed cattle into ethanol (60%), we could displace about 11% of our liquid fuel use.

I am going to have to see your math on that. Just a straight application to my calculations above suggest that 60% could contribute 11% toward the pool on a volumetric basis, but due to the lower fuel density it could only displace 8%. And that doesn't take into consideration the "net", which would subtract out the fossil fuel inputs that went into making the ethanol.

We would also have to consider that all of those by-products from corn production, like corn syrup, have a market today. If you start making ethanol out of them, something will need to take their place. You have to look at the energy impact there as well to get an overall idea of the net effect.


The corn that I speak of using is currently fed to cattle. There are no byproducts being displaced by first fermenting and distilling ethanol from it.

Go to the E3 biofuels website and read about their system. They plan on using natural gas to during startup, but then switching over to methane thereafter. THEY ARE NOT GOING TO BE CONTINUOUSLY BURNING NATURAL GAS TO PRODUCE ETHANOL. There is no "wasteful distillation" going on, as you put it.

In the still that I was running (with ATF approval) I boiled off an 80% ethanol 20% water mixture from the mash. My distillation tower condensed out enough water to bring the ethanol content to 96%. That was in a simple back yard still with no heat recovery. Long term, i am going to build recuperative heat exchangers for both my distillation tower and my mash slurry removal system.

The actual number of BTUs required to boil that 80-20 blend is 2973 BTUs per gallon.

 If vehicles were produced to run e-85 only (not flex-fuel) the compression ratio could be raised and the cooling system on the vehicle could be reduced giving you similar fuel economy, gallon for gallon, even though the energy contained in the ethanol is lower. Look at the Saab biopower stationwagen as an example.

 I realize that most ethanol distilleries use natural gas as a source of heat for their stills, but these will begin to switch over to other heat sources as natural gas prices continue to rise.

The corn that I speak of using is currently fed to cattle. There are no byproducts being displaced by first fermenting and distilling ethanol from it.

But, the cattle are getting some caloric benefit from having the sugars left in.

The actual number of BTUs required to boil that 80-20 blend is 2973 BTUs per gallon.

But, at best you are going to be starting with a 15-85 mixture. It's going to take a big energy input to get from 15% ethanol to your 80% ethanol starting solution above.

I realize that most ethanol distilleries use natural gas as a source of heat for their stills, but these will begin to switch over to other heat sources as natural gas prices continue to rise.

They are starting to switch to coal even now. That makes more economic sense. Environmentally, it's questionable, and probably not the best use we could make of coal.


The cattle are getting no nutritional benefit from having the sugars left in the corn. (the food value of the corn is actually decreased for rheuminating animals when fed large amounts of high sugar content corn(see previous posts)).

as far as distillation goes, here is my math.
start with 45.8lbs of beer (fermented corn and water)
raise the temperature of that to 170 degrees F
this will require 3702 BTUs
      5.5 LBS. of ethanol uses 3.256btu*85degrees F temp. rise
      40.3 LBS. water uses 40.3 btu * 85 degrees F temp. rise
next you evaporate the 80%ethanol 20%water mixture
this will require 2430 btu
      5.5 lbs ethanol *247.8 btu/lb = 1363 btu
      1.1 lbs of water * 970.4 btu = 1067 btu
run that up your distillation column
      no heat required
run that 96% ethanol/ water mixture from your distillation column through your molecular seive
      no heat required
You now have 1 gallon of 100% pure ethanol

you end up consuming 6132 btus of fuel per gallon of ethanol if you run a 100% heat waste cycle.
If you run your beer through a recuperative heat exchanger at 75% efficiency (after you have boiled your ethanol off) you reclaim 2205 btus to warm the next batch of beer.
if you reclaim heat of condensing water from your distillation column, also at 75% efficiency, you recover 800 btus of heat for beer warming and combustion air preheating.
subtract reclaimed heat from input heat 6132 btu - 3005 btu
and you get 3127 btus per gallon of ethanol produced.
factor in regeneration of your molecular seive at approx. 1500 btus
This leaves you with 4627 btus input per gallon of ethanol produced.
Now factor in burner efficiency with economizer and air preheat at 85%

You now have 5443 btus of fuel input per gallon of ethanol output.

I have not taken into account parasitic heat losses through pipework or electricity used for pumping, lighting, ventilation, or plant emissions control, but compared to the distillation process itself, those are minor.

All efficiencies quoted are for standard industrial equiptment, no radical technologies were assumed for these calculations.

The cattle are getting no nutritional benefit from having the sugars left in the corn.

They are getting caloric benefit. They do digest those sugars.

as far as distillation goes, here is my math.

What you have described is not remotely how a distillation works in principle. What you would find, is that even at 170 degrees, you would have water coming off with your ethanol. In order to go from 85% water to 95% ethanol is going to require a fractional distillation, in which the solution is boiling on each tray. At the bottom of the column, you are boiling water. At the top, you are boiling mostly ethanol. The distillation trays are only 65% efficient or so.

Yours is a thought experiment that you will find does not work in practice. Your actual fuel usage is going to be significantly higher than your estimate, and this can be shown by reading the actual energy requirements for a commercial ethanol plant. There are energy optimization techniques that can lower this, but not nearly to the level you are describing.


Studies have shown that they do not digest all of those sugars. A significant percentage of them are passed from the digestive system. especially when fed at a high rate for fattening or milking.

The temperatures I have given were taken from the still that I run.
This is empirical data, not conjecture.

When I tap liquid off the top of the still, before the distillation column, I test it out with A hydrometer at 80% ethanol.

The processes I describe have actually been practiced by myself.

The description of equipment and their efficiencies are arrived at by a person (myself) who is a licensed engineer in the field which we are discussing.

You are working off of the principals that you have learned, I am describing What I have designed, built, and operated.

Studies have shown that they do not digest all of those sugars.

Do you have a reference I can read? Still, if they are digesting some of the sugars, and you remove those sugars, you are going to have to increase the amount of feed they get (or accept less weight gain).

The processes I describe have actually been practiced by myself.

I guess it's not clear to me what you are doing. It appears that you are attempting to calculate your heat inputs, without actually measuring them for the entire system. Do you have some kind of process flow diagram that is available, so I can make sure I understand what you are doing? I just have trouble believing that you could purify ethanol with such a low heat input, when commercial ethanol producers have to spend 50,000 BTUs/gal purifying it. Given that this is one of their major expenses, I would expect them to embrace any design that can save them significant energy inputs.

You have piqued my interest, though.


They plan on using natural gas to during startup, but then switching over to methane thereafter. THEY ARE NOT GOING TO BE CONTINUOUSLY BURNING NATURAL GAS TO PRODUCE ETHANOL. There is no "wasteful distillation" going on, as you put it.

I didn't catch this earlier. Natural gas is methane.


I think this speaks volumes concerning coalburner's purported knowledge of the commercial ethanol distillation process.
Go to the E3 biofuels website and read about their system.

I have spent a couple of hours tonight studying E3 Biofuels. I have read through their patents, a lot of their press releases, and looked over their proposed plant. I think they have the right approach, to be sure. If they are actually able to do what they propose to do - make the ethanol with little to no fossil fuel inputs - then this is ethanol production I could fully support.

On the downside, they have patented the system. That will prevent others from using a similar setup, unless they license it.


Here is the thing about this thread and threads like it. The solution to the problem is never discussed. Currently we live in a petro/chem world with a desire to keep it that way. This desire is simply group-think combined with fear.

When the US Constitution was penned there were no cars, no electricity, no gas stations and no nuclear weapons. George Washington crossed the icy Potomac in a row boat not a Trident Submarine.

Everyone seems to want to switch-up on their fuel of choice and perpetuate the same goal-less mess that we are currently in. Thermodynamics is a limiting factor period. It seems that most people believe that science will save their way of life?

We debate about bio-fuel, synthetic fuel, nuclear fuel and the rest to the detriment of truth. We are not living we are simply biding our time in what could only be expressed as a "rat race!"

In the 1800's several laws were signed by Lincoln allowing corporations to expand and ultimately achieve the status of "persons." This over time breaks the "We The People" preamble of the Constitution. Hence, the true battle is class warfare. The 13th Amendment prevents private slave ownership yet states clearly that the government (local, state, county and federal) may make slaves of anyone who has been convicted of a crime. The amendment did not give the freed slaves any status like rites or voting.

The steam engine basically became the new slave and the states were unified with Federal currency. I would submit that if you were to become poor through economic collapse you could be charged as a vagrant and be made into a slave. Since the Constitution is, "Just a piece of paper!" says our glorious Lord and corporations are now the people that implies that all of the rest are the slaves.

The breezy-easy method to solve all of our woes goes overlooked by most since they are determined to live in the status quo. I shall endeavor to provide a scenario that if harnessed would once and for all solve all of the problems that we face. The biggest problem is tyranny! Here is the step by step, to a life that becomes worth living.

   1. Unite the citizenry in accordance with the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

  1. Eliminate the Federal Reserve, stock market, interest and all laws giving power and status to corporations.
  2. Enact a barter/credit system and declare the nation bankrupt so that our children are freed from the saddle of the current national debt.

  3. Through existing Federal Eminent Domain laws all land and buildings will be ceased as property of the People and all citizens will be considered as permanent tenants. All citizens will be guaranteed a dwelling, food and a fair split of any energy. No evections, rent collections or mortgages would be legal. All deeds would be considered property of the People. Here the class war would ultimately be ended since the wealthy would be provided for along with the poor.

  4. Again using Eminent Domain the entire country would be remapped. Towns would be community centers. Here local government, small corporations, sole proprietorships, entertainment, medical, dental and anything else necessary to the community will create a hub. Efficient dwellings for the masses will surround the towns. Transport to the town from the dwellings will consist of walking, bicycle, trolley, etc. Farms will surround the homes and the acceptable population would be within -5% of projected crop outputs.

  5. Human and animal waste will be utilized in many ways. Each town would have a bio-reactor to break down the waste into useful fertilizer and methane for energy. Depending on geography, climate and weather any over production of crops will be converted into bio fuels and fertilizer or given to other towns.

  6. Towns will ultimately be linked by rail for distribution and transportation.

  7. Any current energy assets will become the property of the Federal Government and shall be dispersed in a manner to accommodate the planned transition or until exhausted in doing so. Imported assets will have to be bartered for since step 3 has been applied. Eventually imports of all types will be phased out since they ultimately waste topsoil and will be unnecessary because steps 1 through 7 will provide the necessary goals needed by the citizenry to obtain happiness and prosperity.

Here I will stop since the concept should be clear. The most difficult step would be step #1. For those that believe that capitalism is sustainable over the long term they will not relinquish control. If we allow our present systems to proceed, the ultimate conclusion will be anarchy. In that anarchy the wealth of the nation (land, goods, food, and energy) will be redistributed through violence. My contention is that the above outline provides for all members of the community while still allowing those that toil in the best interests of said community to trade. Those that slack will not be denied a dwelling or food but will have no ability to trade. Since we would adopt socialized medicine those that provide this service will not be expected to work in the fields and can be compensated for in many ways.

Agriculture will be the most important thing for all of us and the victory garden will replace your current lawns. Efficiency will replace waste, community will replace welfare and there is no peace like that of gardening. Elected officials would not collect a salary nor obtain perks from corporate lobbyists.  Elected officials would serve the people and do so because it would be dutiful just like serving on a jury. Service on any level will have the standard perks for the term and terms will be limited to only one term and out. This way the elected official would be less likely to misplace their loyalties! All of the above would take many years and after our generations are replaced those future generations will find themselves in an efficient utopia. Odds are that if we can clean up our house we might be able to keep the "CIVIL" in civilization.

No, I would not expect a corporate or private land owner above the status of upper middle class to be happy about the land ownership concept above. Yet all that would change is they could not maintain properties as owners yet their primary dwelling spaces they would never be forced from by law, the only limiting factors being efficiency and eminent domain. For instance once efficient dwellings are erected eminent domain would be used to relocate citizens from inefficient dwellings efficient ones. An 8,000 sq. ft. home with a family of 4 is not efficient given that heating it, cooling it, plumbing it and electrifying it become a burden of the poor or disenfranchised.

Here are a few final points I can add. Long ago the Ferro said, "Let them make bricks with no straw!" In spite of his decree the slaves did and managed to keep their tallies up. Some time passed and an American leader gave a speech and said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!" Later yet, Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof, not as an act of fear but as a symbol of hope; Only a few years later, these were  removed by Regan to further embroil us into the corporate controlled government. Maybe now would be a good time to get some new panels up there? All in all if the above concept fails then it would be simple to choose your poison again.

Pharaoh not Ferro> Sorry about that!
I have posted an expanded version of this essay to my blog:

E85: Spinning Our Wheels

I have added "Conclusions" as well as a section detailing the mathematical assumptions in greater detail.


No doubt there will continue to be those who continue to believe that Ethanol is a viable alternative to petroleum.  This would be perfectly ok except for the high subidies, both direct and indirect given to ethanol.  In any event, any reasonable strategy needs to start with the assumption that ethanol will have a minimal effect on our efforts to obtain a substitute for oil and any efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

So, starting from that assumption, and given the apparent fact that we need to reduce greenhouse gases by at least 60 percent, what strategy would get us there?   Our options are limited. If we don't come up with a strategy of radical conservation and efficiency now, we are going to be doomed to live in a world trying to solve the energy problem with coal. In fact, it is already happening, the juggernaut of coal planets covering the planet.  

I live in a high mountain area which is already been negatively  affected by global warming and is warming up much faster than the average for the globe.  This is May?  You've gotta be kidding.  I hate to think what July is going to be like.  The good news is that I will not be around twenty or thirty years from now.

Thank you Robert Rapier for your excellent
analysis of corn to ethanol. It was short,
straight forward and to the point. The best
one I've seen yet.

I would like to see a similar one for
soybeans to biodiesel.


The argument that the U.S cannot produce enough Ethanol is completely wrong IMO.  Check this out...
Xcelplus has ethanol hydrolysis patents:
U.S. and foreign patented system for the manufacture of ethanol utilizing biomass which is usually discarded. Five years of production and testing in Brazil have demonstrated an ethanol output increase of at least 90% in a typical ethanol production facility

This coupled with their U.S. patents for the Flextek E85 conversion system can change the way we fuel America.

Lots of people hold ethanol hydrolysis patents. That doesn't mean it's commercially viable. My arguments are based on actual corn yields, not anticipating breakthroughs that haven't demonstrated viability. If their claims are as advertised, we just need to wait a bit and they will start taking over ethanol production in the U.S. But I have learned not to hold my breath waiting for things like that.

On the other hand, you may be just an employee of XcelPlus trying to make a few bucks, since the site you linked to is just an advertisement. Given that this was your first post to TOD, I don't discount that possibility.


I am not an employee of this company.  I got interested in E85 when I saw a commercial by I believe was GM so I took to the interenet to do research.  I think the idea of E85 is great especially if it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and help our invironment.  I found that company while looking aroung the internet and in fact found official press releases about the flextek and hydrolysis of Ethanol.  I was pointing out that if this stuff actually works in Brazil which is indepenent of oil why can't it work here.  I also called this xcelplus company Friday and purchased a conversion kit.  I simply am a believer that there is something out there better than oil and it will be nice to know I am doing my part.
I think the idea of E85 is great especially if it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and help our invironment.

That's the whole point of my essay, though. It won't make a dent in our dependence on foreign oil. That's what my calculations show. We are not Brazil. We use 6.7 times the amount of energy per person that they use, and we are growing a crop, corn, that is inferior to the crop they use for ethanol production. Apples and oranges.


 You wrote..."In this best case scenario, the ratio of energy out/energy in is 1.27"

This states something quite a bit different...
"The production of ethanol is energy efficient as it yields almost 25 percent more energy than is used in growing the corn, harvesting it, and distilling it into ethanol. The most recent findings show that corn ethanol fuel is energy efficient and yields an energy output:input ratio of 1.6. To get further details and view graphical representations of the energy balance picture, go to: Ethanol - The Complete Energy Lifecycle Picture (PDF 4 MB), developed by the U.S. Department of Energy."


I know all about the shell game they are playing with their accounting. I addressed it here:


I address the report that is the source of those 1.6 claims. They simply are not true. If you look at the actual BTUs in and BTUs out, then the number, including co-products, is 1.27. The way they came up with 1.6 was to assign a large fraction of the BTUs to the co-products, thus claiming that the ethanol production took less BTUs than it actually did. This is addressed in the above essay.


You use numbers given by the USDA.  I quote something from the Department of Energy.  Now why should we believe one government department over another.  This battle will go on for many years simply because the Oil companies have enough money to spend to help change some studies and some politicians into their favor.  It is known that there are ways to produce Ethanol from many different products in which there is enough mass available to produce to make us
independant.  You are stuck on corn and corn only.  What happened to all the brilliant minds that can make this technology work right now.  If Ethanol wasn't plausable then why would countries like China(Currently building the worlds largest Ethanol plant in the world)  be investing huge amounts of Money in Ethanol.  The answer is simple and big oil and their supporters are scared and spending as much money as they can to scare the US public into thinking this would never be viable.  Its a battle of David versus Goliath and my friend in the end Ethanol will win out.  I just hope the U.S. becomes a leader in the Ethanol world and not just outside the window looking in
You use numbers given by the USDA.  I quote something from the Department of Energy.

The Department of Energy got those numbers from the USDA study. That's why I mentioned it. The USDA paper was co-authored by Wang at Argonne, and is the original source of those 1.6 claims.

This battle will go on for many years simply because the Oil companies have enough money to spend to help change some studies and some politicians into their favor.

You have it exactly backwards. The battle is going on because of big ag and ethanol producers like ADM spending big dollars on lobbying efforts. It's all about politics, but it isn't Big Oil behind it. If Big Oil thought ethanol was a viable alternative, they wouldn't just sit around while ethanol plants sprang up everywhere. They would start building their own.

You are stuck on corn and corn only.

That's where you are wrong. My graduate thesis was on ethanol from biomass. It has more promise than corn ethanol, but you must still deal with the problem of purifying a solution that is mostly water. There are better solutions.

If Ethanol wasn't plausable then why would countries like China(Currently building the worlds largest Ethanol plant in the world)  be investing huge amounts of Money in Ethanol.

For the same reason anyone spends research dollars: In the hope that you will find the breakthrough that will make the technology feasible. But you fund the research; you don't build out the infrastructure and hope the breakthroughs come. Ethanol can be a local solution in certain circumstances. In no way is it a national solution.

Its a battle of David versus Goliath and my friend in the end Ethanol will win out.

The problem is that I made a clear case in my opening essay, and you are just claiming that ethanol is being held down by Big Oil and will win out. I made the case. You need to address the case I put together in the opening post, which is why ethanol can't hope to make a dent. In fact, if you pulled the ethanol subsidies and the mandates, this industry would cease to exist within 5 years. It can't compete because it is too heavily on fossil fuels.